When former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty announced last year that he was leaving his cushy DC lobbying job to try to reclaim his old job, establishment Republicans cheered. Pawlenty, who spent eight years as the state's governor last decade, was seen as the party's only chance of winning the governor's mansion in the Democratic-tilting state.
On Tuesday, Pawlenty lost the Republican primary -- convincingly. The author of the shocking upset was Jeff Johnson, a lightly known Hennepin County commissioner.
"The Republican Party has shifted," Pawlenty acknowledged in his concession speech Tuesday night. "It is the era of Trump, and I'm just not a Trump-like politician."
Yup, that captures the current state of affairs nicely.
What's remarkable is how quickly Trump's hostile takeover of the GOP happened. Back when Pawlenty ran for president in 2012, he was regarded as one of the bright young stars of the party -- someone who had cracked the code on how Republicans could win in blue states in the industrial Midwest. Six years later, Pawlenty couldn't even win a Republican primary in a state where he spent almost a decade as governor -- and against a candidate who no one gave a chance of unseating him when the race started.
Pawlenty becomes the latest example of the penalty paid by those Republicans who resist Trump and the sort of bare-knuckled politics he has brought to the GOP. Pawlenty now joins a scrap heap of one-time rising stars that includes, among many, many others, Jeb Bush, Jeff Flake and Bob Corker. All of these men spoke out against Trump during the course of the 2016 campaign. All lost -- or were driven into retirement -- as the direct result of that decision.
To be clear: Pawlenty's past opposition to Trump -- "He is unsound, uninformed, unhinged and unfit to be president of the United States, and I am withdrawing my support of him," the former governor said in the wake of the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape in 2016 -- wasn't the only reason he lost on Tuesday. Having served as a very well-paid lobbyist just before deciding to run for governor again isn't exactly the resume point most GOP voters (or any voters) are looking for right now. Retired politicians trying to get back into government also don't fit with the current political moment. And perhaps most importantly, there's a reason why Pawlenty's star never rose in that 2012 presidential race -- he was deeply underwhelming as a candidate, seemingly lacking the spine to strike the hard body blows against his opponents that every successful politician must.
Still, even with those clear problems, the Republican Party of, say, 2012, almost certainly re-nominates Pawlenty to be their gubernatorial nominee. He's the kind of guy with the kind of background and the kind of policy positions -- average guy looking out for the average Joe and Jane -- who Republicans long believed was their future.
No more. Trump killed that Republican ideal during the 2016 primary season. Whether it was Jeb(!) Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich, Republican voters rejected them all in favor of Trump's populist, nativist appeals to their raw emotions. These losers have failed you, Trump told the crowds -- and they believed him.
For all of Trump's divisiveness, his norm-shattering and his rejection of the ideas that have long defined what it means to be the President of the United States, he has been embraced by Republican voters like few GOP politicians before him. In Gallup's weekly national tracking poll, almost 90% of Republican voters have consistently expressed approval for the job Trump is doing as president -- even as less than half that number of the overall public shares those sentiments. Trump has cast himself as "the most popular person in the history of the Republican Party," adding: "I beat our Honest Abe."
Trump's death grip on the GOP's base explains the unwillingness of Republican leaders -- with the exception of those who are retiring -- to cross him, even when he says and does things (like saying that both Russia and the US were to blame for Russian election interference in 2016) that would have elicited calls to resign in the past. They are afraid of him. And as Pawlenty's loss proves, with good reason!
Whether or not the Republican establishment -- such as it still exists in frail replica of its former self -- wants to admit it, there aren't two wings of the current GOP. There is the Trump wing -- and that's it. Yes, pockets of resistance remain -- and can even score an occasional win in their ongoing battle against Trump. But they are very much the exception, not the rule. This is Donald Trump's party now, and any Republican not willing to kiss the ring runs the risk of getting Pawlenty-ed. And soon.