Last spring, Gov. Tim Pawlenty wielded his self-styled "taxpayer protection pen" with the air of a man deeply at ease with his own power. Thanks to his record-shattering 34 vetoes, scores of rural schoolteachers are still without health insurance, FedEx continues to designate their full-time drivers in Minnesota as "self-employed contractors" undeserving of benefits, and our children still play with toys containing potentially brain-dimming toxins known as phthalates.
For all his evident boldness, however, Pawlenty's most powerful days could be in the past. As Minnesotans go to the polls in November, DFL legislators are within reach of dealing the governor a blow arguably more grievous than getting passed over to be John McCain's running mate. Already possessing a two-thirds majority in the state Senate, Democrats need to pick up just five seats in the House to gain a veto-proof majority and transform Pawlenty's feared veto pen into a glorified pencil.
If Democrats are successful, says Carleton College professor and political analyst Steven Schier, Pawlenty can expect to have his vetoes rammed back down his throat.
"It would be too inviting for Democrats not to push their agenda," Schier says.
Just two years ago, talk like this would've been the stuff of lefty fantasy. Republicans controlled the governor's mansion, the state House, and had a sizable presence in the state Senate. But that was before the epic bloodbath of 2006. In the Senate, Republicans lost six of their 29 seats. In the House, things went far worse, with the DFL going from minority status to wielding an imposing 85-49 advantage.
House Minority Leader Marty Seifert says the political climate two years ago couldn't have been worse for Republicans. Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) was chasing teenagers around the halls of Congress, disaffection over the Iraq war was at a fevered pitch, and there was nothing to distract voters from their newfound disdain for George W. Bush.
But this time Republicans won't take the beating lying down. This year the GOP is fielding candidates in every House race—they let DFLers run unopposed in three districts last time around. The speculation of a DFL veto-proof majority in the House, Seifert says, is nothing more than "a pipe dream."
His bluster is backed, to a point, by simple math. Of the eight seats DFLers snatched from GOP clutches in right-leaning suburban districts in 2006, half were won by fewer than 250 votes. Statewide, of the 16 House races that came down to fewer than 500 votes, DFLers won 11 of them. Simply put, House Democrats have more ground to defend than do Republicans.
But though DFLers face a hungry opposition and difficult numbers, they aren't without weapons of their own. The most powerful is the much-touted Barack Obama ground game. Presidential elections in Minnesota typically attract an extra voter for every four or five who show up in off years. But Obama's field team has spent months building a network of volunteers to register and turn out voters. If it's as effective as advertised, down-ballot DFLers can expect an added boost.
There's also the question of whether the residue of Republican infighting from the past legislative session will spill over into the voter booths. In the wake of the 35W bridge collapse, six Republican House members broke with their party to override Pawlenty's veto of the mammoth transportation funding bill. House Republican leaders, seething at the insubordination, did their best to freeze the "override six" out of their jobs. Half of the rebels are out of politics, replaced by more obedient conservatives, and one, Ron Erhardt, is running as an independent, throwing his right-leaning suburban district into a chaotic three-way free-for-all.
Minnesota Democrats also dodged a bullet when John McCain chose Sarah Palin over Tim Pawlenty as a running mate. Without the cachet Pawlenty brings to the top of the ticket, Republicans concede they've lost a likely two-point bump across the board.
But while DFLers revel in their strengths and look to seize control of state government, Seifert leaves little doubt he's ready to sling mud in whatever direction he deems necessary. Republican incumbents in 2006, he said in an interview on the floor of the Xcel Energy Center during the Republican National Convention, "were fat and lazy."
Did he care to name names?
"No," Seifert demurred, "especially with the fat part."
But wasn't that just a figure of speech?
"If you weigh 300 pounds, you're probably not knocking on many doors."