Al Franken may have the last laugh.
The ultra-liberal comedian won a Senate seat in Minnesota in 2008, after an extremely controversial and months-long recount. But now, despite the fact that he’s up for reelection in 2014, Franken seems to generate little attention — and few opponents. So far, only one person, financial-services executive Mike McFadden, has announced that he will run for the GOP nomination. Others, including former senator Norm Coleman, whom Franken defeated in 2008, have announced they will not run in 2014.
Ever since his election, Franken has been relatively quiet. He rarely talks to national media — a strategy that has kept him out of the spotlight. “Franken’s been very strategic and kind of flighting away from who he was when he first ran for office,” remarks Larry Jacobs, a political-science professor at the University of Minnesota. “He’s now moved into a mode in which he brags about being the second-funniest senator from the state of Minnesota. He rarely engages in any kind of comedy or humor. If you were to hear him speak, I think you’d probably walk away saying, ‘Not funny.’ It’s absolutely deliberate.”
Franken has also made a conscious effort to appeal to non-liberal voters. “A lot of the work he’s done in the Senate,” Jacobs adds, “has been trying to find non-controversial, almost non-political activities to put in front of voters, things about vets and seeing-eye dogs and adoption. And he’s always looking for ways to find Republican co-sponsors. All these efforts are part of a makeover: He is not who he was.”
Donald McFarland, a Minnesota Democratic strategist, says that Franken has paid attention to the nuts and bolts of being a senator, including delivering “excellent constituent service.” “Whenever he’s in Minnesota,” McFarland adds, “he’s talking to people who live here, and he crosses the state all the time. He’s extremely accessible.”
But while Franken’s persona may have changed, his values haven’t. “This is a guy who’s voted for a whole slew of damaging and unpopular legislation,” says Pat Shortridge, former chairman of the Minnesota GOP. “And although he’s kept his head down and hasn’t said much, he hasn’t fundamentally redefined himself in terms of who he is or what he believes.”
“He’s an angry partisan liberal,” Shortridge adds. “And that hasn’t changed.” According to National Journal’s 2012 rankings, Franken is the third-most-liberal senator (after Tom Udall of New Mexico and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut). His Minnesota colleague, Senator Amy Klobuchar, is much closer to the center: She is ranked just the 30th-most-liberal senator.
Shortridge predicts that the GOP race will begin to heat up in the coming weeks. “I suspect you’ll see some names start to pop up over the next couple of weeks,” he says. “Mike McFadden won’t be the only one in the race.”
One factor that might attract would-be GOP candidates: Running against Franken should boost fundraising efforts. “He can also raise money for us, because he’s such a polarizing figure,” says Shortridge.
However, as Jacobs points out, there is another factor that helps explain the shortage of interest so far in challenging Franken: the disarray of the state GOP. “They’re in debt by well over a million dollars,” he remarks, “and they’ve had just a kind of continuing rancor about how to dig out of the financial hole.” Yet another factor is the “very significant divisions” in the state between establishment Republicans and tea-party and Ron Paul Republicans. Thanks to those divisions, it’s likely the primary will be messy.
Shortridge, who led the Minnesota Republican party until this April, disputes that the condition of the party is the reason Senate candidates have been slow to emerge, saying the GOP is in “better shape” than it has been in recent times. Furthermore, “state parties really don’t have a whole lot to do with Senate races,” he explains: The Republican National Committee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee will play much bigger roles.
Ultimately, state Republicans are hoping that Franken, under fire in a campaign, will revert to his old persona. “Franken is Franken, and I’ve no doubt in the context of a competitive campaign, the true Al will be front and center,” Shortridge comments. “You can only hide it for so long.”
“He benefits, as does Governor [Mark] Dayton, from low expectations. After the Jesse Ventura experience, I think most Minnesotans figured that they were going to be embarrassed by Al Franken on a weekly, if not daily, basis,” he remarks, adding, “It’s hardly a ringing endorsement. It just was a low bar, and he stepped over it.”
McFarland disagrees about the likely effect of a heated campaign. “I don’t think he’s going to change,” he remarks.
Currently Franken appears to be in a good position: Stu Rothenberg calls the seat “safe Democrat,” while the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has the seat as “leans Democrat.”
But Jacobs still thinks Franken has cause for concern. “This is not a state that is as Democratic as it may appear,” he says. “There’s no doubt that the right candidate and the right set of circumstances could topple Al Franken. His is not by any means a safe seat.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.