You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Hundredth Senator

Does Tim Pawlenty have what it takes to be president? We may know the answer to that question surprisingly soon. Even before he wound up on John McCain's short list of potential running mates last summer, the 48-year-old Minnesota governor was being hailed as the sort of Republican who could reverse the national GOP's steep decline. With his working-class roots (his father was a truck driver) and unorthodox conservatism (he'd just as quickly bash pharmaceutical companies as praise them), Pawlenty seems uniquely suited to appeal to independent voters, who in recent years have favored Democrats. It's little wonder that he's said to be seriously considering a run for the White House in 2012.

Which is why Pawlenty is about to come to a political crossroads. In a matter of weeks, the Minnesota Supreme Court will almost certainly uphold a three-judge panel's determination that Al Franken beat Norm Coleman in last November's U.S. Senate race by 312 votes. Coleman has indicated that he will likely challenge the expected ruling in federal court. And Pawlenty, as Minnesota's governor, will face a decision: Does he certify Franken's election and fill Minnesota's second Senate seat? Or does he refuse to sign Franken's certificate of election, without which the Senate refuses to seat him, until Coleman has fought and--according to the predictions of most legal minds not in Coleman's direct employ--inevitably lost his case in the federal courts?

As a matter of Pawlenty's political self-interest, the benefits of the latter would seem obvious. With Republicans anxious to deny Democrats a 59th vote in the Senate for as long as humanly possible, Pawlenty could give himself a leg up in the 2012 primaries by refusing to seat Franken until Coleman's federal suit is resolved--something that National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman John Cornyn has predicted could take "years." Indeed, if congressional Republicans are successful in thwarting any of President Obama's first-term agenda, Pawlenty would be able to plausibly claim credit. Plenty of successful presidential campaigns have been built on less.

As a matter of political principle, however, Pawlenty will have to send Franken to Washington. Up until now, he has been on solid legal footing in not signing Franken's certificate. Minnesota election law doesn't allow a certificate to be issued until any legal challenge to that election is resolved. But, after the state Supreme Court rules on Coleman's appeal, Pawlenty will have little choice. In an abundance of caution, he could ask the Senate to seat Franken provisionally, in the unlikely event that Coleman's federal suit succeeds (something the Senate did for Mary Landrieu while a legal challenge to her 1996 victory in Louisiana wound its way through the courts). But, if Pawlenty doesn't sign the certificate, he will not only be acting counter to the intent of the state Supreme Court, he'll be denying Minnesotans their constitutional right to dual representation in the U.S. Senate--something they haven't had since early January.

That's why, as eager as Republicans in Washington are for the Coleman-Franken legal fight to drag on, voters in Minnesota want it to end. According to a poll taken the day after the three-judge panel roundly rejected Coleman's challenge, 63 percent of Minnesotans believe Coleman should concede the race, and, barring that, 59 percent favor Pawlenty signing the certificate that will send Franken to Washington and finally give the state two senators. As the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which endorsed Coleman, put it in a recent editorial urging a speedy resolution to the Coleman-Franken battle: "Two voices are better than one when it comes to securing federal funding for Minnesota projects, or representing this state's particular perspective on issues ranging from health care to immigration to military and veterans' affairs." While it's far too common for politicians to ignore their constituents while they run for the White House--Barack Obama, for instance, missed 64 percent of Senate votes in 2008--Pawlenty would be taking this practice to a whole new level if he put his own presidential ambitions above Minnesotans' interests.

What's more, it's far from clear that such a move would actually serve those ambitions. Pawlenty's calling card up until now has been that he is a different kind of Republican--more "Sam's Club" than "country club," as he's put it. And that's a good brand to have these days. While diehard Republicans might hail Pawlenty for flouting the law and failing to represent his constituents, those diehards are becoming an ever-smaller part of the electorate: A recent Pew poll found that about one-quarter of the population identifies as Republican, down from one-third in 2004. The way forward for Pawlenty--and the GOP--lies in demonstrating that his party is not an irrelevant, balkanized rump. By seating Franken, Pawlenty could do just that.

By The Editors