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Minnesota Races

Senate Outlook for 2008

Can Democrats Take Advantage of the Turf?

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Minnesota

Outlook: Leans Republican


November 14, 2008 Update:

Those holding their breaths awaiting final results from the Gopher State can’t breathe easy quite yet. With just 206 votes separating Democrat Al Franken and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, this contest likely won’t be resolved until mid-December.

While Coleman holds the incredibly thin lead, the recount preparations are all but finalized. At the center of attention is state Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, the Democratic office-holder who will oversee the recount. While Coleman’s forces have praised the panel Ritchie appointed to oversee the recount, many have accused Ritchie of overt partisanship. At issue are his comments to Fox News which were seen as overly harsh to Coleman. The comments stirred up a frenzy of criticism, although there have been no concrete allegations of misconduct. Even with the Minnesota winter rapidly approaching, this race is still heating up.

October 4, 2008 Update:

It’s amazing what a wacky election cycle will do to a popular, well-financed incumbent going up against a famous late-night comedian in a state where a man nicknamed “The Body” once served as governor. Senator Norm Coleman has made it his job to point out all of Al Franken’s crude and satirical pokes throughout the years in an attempt to demonstrate his opponent has neither the gravitas nor the temperament to hold high office. On some level, Franken’s his recent collaboration on Saturday Night Live skit critical of John McCain only cemented this un-Senatorial impression, but on the whole, things are looking up for the challenger.

For most of the campaign, Mr. Franken has been on the defensive, but recently he has countered with ads that have resonated with Minnesotans. Turning away from satire, Franken’s ads feature the candidate looking straight into the camera and denouncing Coleman’s ties to Bush, indicted Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, and the tarnished GOP brand in general. Even more provocative spots feature the parents of soldiers killed in Iraq condemning Coleman for failed oversight and leadership. For Franken, the campaign’s serious turn has worked: recent polls have shown Coleman’s once-strong lead to be fading fast.

Despite Franken’s recent momentum, however, the Independent Party candidacy of former Senator Dean Barkley scrambles the Democratic challenger’s path to victory. Polls show that Barkley—who was appointed by Governor Jesse Ventura to fill the 2002 vacancy following Senator Paul Wellstone’s death— registers in the low-to-mid teens and appears to be siphoning votes away from both candidates, but odds are Franken is hurting more. In a blue-state “change” election, there is a significant bloc of anti-Bush, anti-Republican, anti-incumbent voters, enough perhaps to knock off even the popular, well-financed Coleman. With a controversial Democratic challenger, this “change” vote may split between Franken and Barkley, allowing Coleman to sneak through with his pro-incumbent coalition intact. As presidential polls show a close race further up the ballot, national events may also influence the contest as it continues to tighten. In any event, this race has become one to watch as we careen towards November 4th.

July 16, 2008 Update:

Pundits and prognosticators nationwide breathed a collective a sigh of disappointment Tuesday when Jesse “The Body” Ventura chose surfing in Mexico over campaigning in Minnesota. (Seriously, can anyone really blame him?) Although three ring circus between a sitting Senator, a comedian, and a former professional wrestler would have been hugely entertaining for political junkies, Ventura’s no-go was the best news for Al Franken in months. Had the former Governor stepped into the ring, his votes almost certainly would have come at Franken’s expense.

Ventura’s non-entrance, however, won’t drain all of the energy from the race. Franken’s off-color writings continue to simmer with more undoubtedly to come by November, and Norm Coleman has drawn scrutiny over renting bargain-basement DC apartment from a lobbyist friend. For now, though, Coleman retains the advantage over Franken, despite the state’s liberal lean and the nation’s Democratic mood. The passing of the filing deadline without new entries also means that Democrats are stuck with a severely flawed candidate in Franken. Come 2009, the party may well remember Minnesota as their biggest missed opportunity of the entire cycle.

June 18, 2008 Update:

In the state with the Twin Cities, Democratic candidate Al Franken has hit twin stumbling blocks. The first were tax problems, after it was revealed that he would have to pay nearly $100,000 in back taxes due in various states where the touring comedian had earned income over the previous five years. While Franken claims he paid roughly the correct sum and merely sent it to the wrong states, he garnered headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Franken’s second recent revelation regarded a somewhat explicit article the comedian wrote for Playboy magazine in 2000. His political opponents have been mining his past writings, of which they are countless, looking for the most egregious examples to represent that Franken is unfit to serve as a United States senator. Despite the fiery criticism of his 2000 Playboy article and his overdue taxes, Franken still sewed up the DFL, as the Democratic Party is known in Minnesota, endorsement. While former candidate Mike Ciresi, who dropped out in March, is rumored to be considering a return to the race and could therefore still force a primary, it is almost certain that Franken will be the nominee.

The next stage is the general election. A May poll showed Franken trailing incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman by 7%, with nearly 40% of voters having a unfavorable opinion of Franken and only 30% with a favorable opinion. A later Rasumussen poll, taken in June, also showed Coleman leading, but Franken was within the margin of error. Clearly, this race will be close all the way until November, but Coleman has managed to avoid bad press for the past few months while Franken has been wallowing in it. Advantage: Coleman.

March 25, 2008 Update:

If you’re in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and it seems a bit warmer than usual, that’s probably because how hotly contested this Senate race has already become. Writer and comedian Al Franken has emerged from a very close Democratic nomination process to be the party’s likely challenger to Republican incumbent Norm Coleman. Franken has shown a remarkable ability to raise money, reporting over $3 million in cash on hand as of December 2007. He’s going to need every last cent of it, as Coleman’s war chest hovers around $6 million.

As much money as the two have, this is a race that could come down to image. Coleman is attempting to paint Franken as a divisive, mean-spirited Hollywood liberal, making sure voters know every last crack Franken has made at Republicans during his time on Saturday Night Live and other shows. Franken will undoubtedly retort by lumping Coleman in with George Bush and the Republican establishment; if he calls Coleman a lying liar, then we’ll know the gloves are all the way off.

When Franken first entered the race, many pundits were quick to dismiss him as basically a protest candidate. But after all-but-clinching the Democratic nomination, Franken has proved his campaign is no laughing matter, and that he’ll be a serious challenge to Coleman winning a second term in the S
enate. Coleman has incumbency and healthy approval ratings going for him, tilting this race in his favor, but it’s going to be very interesting for months to come.

December 14, 2007 Update:

Here’s a state that still leans Democratic but overall can be unpredictable politically. Six years ago, Republican Norm Coleman won a narrow victory over former Vice President Walter Mondale (D), the substitute nominee after the tragic death of Senator Paul Wellstone (D) in a plane crash. Coleman is beatable in 2008, but it’s far from certain that either of the two likely Democratic nominees, comedian Al Franken or the wealthy Mike Ciresi, can do it. For now, Coleman continues to work his state hard, and we’ll call it LEANS REPUBLICAN.

November 20, 2007 Update:

Al Franken is no joke. Since March, he’s halved the polling gap between himself and Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, to single digits. He’s fundraising like crazy, and always shows genuine emotion when talking about the war in Iraq, improving healthcare, and other hot button Democratic issues.

However, Franken may not even get a shot at Coleman. His opponent for the Democratic nomination, attorney Mike Ciresi, trails Coleman by even fewer points than Franken, actually breaking into the margin of error in some polls. If Minnesota Dems see Ciresi as the more likely candidate to take back a Democratic seat in the Senate, November could see Coleman v. Ciresi, not Coleman v. Franken.

One wild card in the Democratic nominating process is what happens with Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, a professor at St. Thomas University who trails Franken and Ciresi by wide margins in the fundraising race. Nelson-Pallmeyer stands little chance of actually winning the nomination, but could deliver his supporters into the camp of one of the more viable candidates, swinging what is sure to be a close convention in favor of either Franken or Ciresi.

The general election is bound to be a bloodbath. Coleman is polling under 50% in hypothetical contests with both of the Democratic frontrunners, numbers that don’t bode well for an incumbent less than a year from the election. Democrats are resentful that a Republican holds this seat, one that belonged to the late Paul Wellstone for almost 12 years. Whoever their nominee is, expect for Dems to come out swinging, and swinging for the fences.


Background

Senator Norm Coleman took his seat in the Senate in 2002, narrowly defeating former Vice President Walter Mondale. After just four years in office, he faces further opposition to his post that will likely result in another close election. Coleman’s approval rating, according to a March 2007 SurveyUSA poll, was at 47%, with 43% disapproving. Those numbers are not strong enough by any means to guarantee re-election, especially for a Republican candidate in Minnesota in a presidential election year.

Celebrity comedian Al Franken‘s name recognition has given him a boost in the early days of campaigning. In the second quarter, Franken raised $1.9 million. His first quarter donations totaled $1.35 million, making him an economically serious challenger to Coleman. The current Senator raised $1.5 million in the first quarter and $1.6 in the second, but has a total of $3.9 million cash-on-hand. Franken also faces at least three other Democratic opponents who, though less financially successful, will surely attempt to discredit him as a funnyman who lacks the gravitas to be a United State Senator.

Lawyer Mike Ciresi will have no problem financing a campaign either; he raised $750,000 in the second quarter alone. As a successful attorney who has faced-off against tobacco companies, Ciresi will be able to donate extensively to his own campaign. Ciresi’s previous attempt at the Senate failed in 2000, when he lost the Democratic primary to eventual Senator Mark Dayton.

Environmental activist Jim Cohen rounds out the list of Democratic contenders. Facing a financial hurdle that his opponents do not, fiscal concerns could cause him to be lost in a crowd of other, better-known hopefuls.

The primary battle will be further complicated by the convention nominating system utilized by the Minnesota state parties. The Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has scheduled their statewide convention for June 2008 and it is there that party activists and leaders will choose their Senate nominee. This system could neutralize some of Franken’s money advantage, rewarding instead grassroots organization and the support of party insiders.

In recent statewide campaigns, Minnesota voted against Bush twice, though narrowly, and ex-Governor Jesse Ventura proved that the state is unafraid to elect a different personality to office. However, three of the past five senators have been Republicans, showing a more recent Republican trend in the state. The conflicted nature of Minnesota’s party politics, coupled with such diverse and high-profile candidates, will lead to an unpredictable and exciting 2008 race.

Candidates

Al Franken – Democrat – comedian, liberal activist
Website

Norm Coleman (I) – Republican – current Senator
Website

Dean Barkley – Independent – former Senator
Website