WASHINGTON -- When he entered the 2012 race for president, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty shot out of the gate. He was the first substantial Republican candidate for president to create an exploratory committee. He had already begun visiting the early caucus and primary states, and had his own bit of branding, referring to himself as a “Sam’s Club Republican” -- the kind of pitch a Frank Luntz focus group would have loved. And at least one pundit, Jonathan Chait, believed “T-Paw” to be a frontrunner.
In this week’s episode of "Candidate Confessional," Pawlenty explained that there was a logic to his campaign launch. He knew that Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who gave Arizona Sen. John McCain a scare in the previous primary, was the clear favorite. And he feared that once Romney announced, he needed to establish himself as the alternative.
As everyone familiar with the 2012 race knows, Pawlenty’s calculations proved incorrect. His campaign ended up burning through resources while prepping for a meaningless Iowa straw poll that it ultimately lost. Pawlenty would end up dropping out months before the first real votes were cast.
The problem was simple. “We didn’t have the money to stay in long enough to get a full and fair hearing,” Pawlenty told us.
In turns out that the campaign with the impressive resumes didn’t understand elections in a post-Citizens United world. The famous Supreme Court case, along with a lower court ruling, allowed unlimited spending by corporations and unions as well as billionaires as long they remained independent from candidates and political parties. The Federal Election Commission sanctioned super PACs in 2010 as a vehicle for this unlimited spending.
Before the two began their runs for the presidency, Romney met privately with Pawlenty and, as Pawlenty recalled, the subject of the super PAC came up.
“I remember Mitt coming to see me at the governor’s residence in Minnesota,” Pawlenty told "Candidate Confessional." “I was still governor and he was thinking about running, I was at least thinking about running. We shared our views and we were friends and got along, you know, well.”
“[Romney] said, ‘Timmy, have you thought about or heard about, you know, in the wake of this court decision, this thing called the super PAC?’” Pawlenty recalled.
Pawlenty admitted that he thought the whole idea was pretty funny. “I remember laughing afterwards with some of my staff and team and consultants. I’d say, ‘Yeah I need a super PAC too!’ I didn’t even know what it was,” he said.
At the time Pawlenty dropped out, only Romney had a super PAC. But Texas Gov. Rick Perry would get one, and then Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum would follow.
“It turned out [Romney] and others saw the significance of that court decision and again appropriately,” Pawlenty admitted. “I didn’t even know what it was until we were well into the race. And I remember thinking, ‘Damn, I wish we would have had a super PAC.’”
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Paul Blumenthal contributed reporting.