The likely recount in the Minnesota gubernatorial race, where Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Dayton currently leads Republican state Rep. Tom Emmer by slightly under 9,000 votes, has presented an interesting possible scenario: Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a potential presidential candidate, could end up staying in office a little while longer if the election gets tied up in the courts — and with a newly-elected Republican majority legislature, to boot.
Is it possible that the GOP might try to drag out the recount process to pass Republican-friendly legislation without the threat of a Democratic governor’s veto pen? So far, one top Republican, the incoming state House Speaker, has said they wouldn’t try to do that — but they would have to get things done eventually. And the possibility does seem to be hanging over the whole proceeding.
Many observers — including Fritz Knaak, a former lawyer for Norm Coleman — have said that it would be very difficult for Emmer to win with the vote numbers like this. But if the process were to drag out, it could result in a Republican governor staying in office longer than expected.
As you might recall from the previous statewide recount in Minnesota, the recent legally contested Senate election from 2008 that resulted in a final 312-vote win by Democrat Al Franken, Minnesota will not certify an election winner in a disputed election until a state legal contest (a kind of civil trial) is concluded. And with the result in that election so close, the recount and subsequent legal processes ended up taking eight months, with Franken not being sworn in until July 2009.
And as we also learned the day after the election, Minnesota’s state constitution provides for the current governor, Pawlenty, to stay in office until a successor is determined.
Another twist here is that the state simultaneously elected Republican majorities in both houses of the legislature, reversing previously strong control by the Democrats in both chambers. (Pawlenty has never had the chance to govern with a GOP-dominated legislature. During his first term there was a Republican House and Democratic Senate, and in his second term the Dems had both houses.)
As a result, Pawlenty could have a serious say on some big issues, such as Medicaid expansion and the state budget. And it would make a very big difference to Minnesota if a temporary Republican governor were at the helm, instead of a very Democratic one like Mark Dayton. Pawlenty said last Thursday, “I earnestly, genuinely, sincerely hope this is resolved by January 3rd,” and that while he would do his job as governor if these issues come up, “I won’t go out looking for them.”
Incoming state House Speaker-designate Kurt Zellers (R) issued this statement on Monday, which was forwarded to us by his office, saying that the GOP would not take unfair advantage of the situation. But at the same time, he said, a biennial budget would have to be passed on time by late May:
“It would be disrespectful to either candidate and the people of Minnesota to somehow try to game the system or manipulate the recount to push through a legislative agenda. The recount should take its due course through the legal process and remain untainted by political maneuvering to drag out or accelerate anyone’s legislative agenda.
“You’re not going to see the House rush to ram something through right out of the gate just to try to beat the system. But we do have a job to do regardless of who sits in the Governor’s Office. We will get to work on day one to reform government and bring jobs back to Minnesota. We will work with whomever is governor in order to get our work done by the constitutional end date of May 23. It would be irresponsible to the people who pay the bills to not get our budget done on time while they have to.”
In an interview with Minnesota Public Radio on Monday, Zellers also pointed out that the necessary budget forecasts (revenue, expenditures, etc.) would likely not come out until March, which would further delay any serious decisions.
If one thinks that Dayton’s wider margin in the count would seriously undermine the chance of the case dragging out as it did for the 2008 Senate race, then Zellers’ prediction of late budget forecasts would be a good sign that drastic policies won’t be enacted.
But on the other hand, as the Star-Tribune reported Tuesday, at least some Republicans welcome this possibility:
“I don’t think there’s any downside to keeping this recount going on as long as possible,” said a high-level Republican operative who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “If we keep the process going, there are opportunities for us in the upcoming legislative session.”
I asked Zellers’ public affairs director Kevin Watterson for comment on that anonymous GOPer’s statement. “We’re still kind of in the same thing we said before,” said Watterson. “We’re not gonna try to rush things through right away in the first day or week of session, just to game the system because Pawlenty’s still around. But it’s certainly possible that this thing could drag out into June like the Senate recount did. We have to get the legislature’s work done. So it all depends on the time frame that we’re talking about.”
In response to that quote in the Star Tribune, Dayton recount director Ken Martin put out this statement, forwarded to us by his campaign:
“The official county canvassing reports show that Mark Dayton’s lead of nearly 9,000 votes is virtually insurmountable. Also, the post-election audits conducted by the counties show that the optical scanners were highly accurate. If Tom Emmer chooses to proceed with the manual recount, we expect that it will go smoothly and fully confirm the canvass results.
“However, the storm cloud of the horizon is the recent indication that Republicans intend to try to keep Mark Dayton from being sworn in on January 3. According to a ‘high-ranking Republican operative,’ quoted in this morning’s Star Tribune, the Republicans want to ‘keep this recount going as long as possible’ to provide ‘opportunities for us in the upcoming legislative session.’
“If that is the Republicans’ goal, it is a strategy designed to hijack the will of Minnesota voters. Such an outrageous power grab would be completely un-Minnesotan. We expect that it would blow up in the Republicans’ faces.
“The people spoke on November 2, and we know what they said. They said that Mark Dayton will become governor on January 3.”
Larry Jacobs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, told us that Republican legislators and Pawlenty would both have clear disincentives from doing this kind of maneuver. “Remember, both the House and Senate, all of them, are up for election in two years,” said Jacobs. “Plus, Gov. Pawlenty has a book tour coming up. He’s not interested in being bogged down here.”
Jacobs was cautious in giving a solid prediction of when this recount will end, given the experience from last time. But given the wider margin for Dayton in this new recount — and state law that requires proof of a material violation of election law that would change outcome in order to sustain a legal contest — Jacobs said, “My hunch is we’ll probably have a result in December.”
As for the Republicans trying to hold on: “I just don’t think it’s gonna happen. Again, they’re going to be at the voters in two years. And that would be devastating. It would just look so corrupt.”