Minnesota is not the state you would think of as being the best political fit for a conservative Jewish lawyer who grew up in Brooklyn. Nevertheless, Norm Coleman is hoping that his first term as senator from a populist and, at best, “Purple” Minnesota will not be his last.
Coleman’s road to the Senate has been anything but ordinary. It proceeded roughly as follows: 1960s antiwar and civil-rights protester, almost two decades in the Minnesota attorney general’s office, Democratic mayor of St. Paul, Republican convert, Republican senator.
In 2002 he ran against Paul Wellstone for the U.S. Senate. Wellstone died in a tragic plane crash less than two weeks before the election. The exuberant funeral, which seemed more a Democratic political rally than a solemn tribute, is credited with helping Coleman eke out a win by two percent over Wellstone’s replacement, former Vice President Walter Mondale.
PLACING THE SENATOR
Coleman is not easy to pigeonhole, which may be a good thing for a Republican in a state which Powerline blogger John Hinderaker reminds us “still has a lot of Democrats if you shake the trees.” Indeed, the story of Coleman’s first term may be how a very smart and skilled politician navigated between conservative principles and political realities.
Coleman says emphatically, in an interview for this piece, “I am a conservative… strong on the Second Amendment and 100 percent pro-life.” He carries a 75-percent positive rating from Americans for Tax Reform. Repeatedly he cast votes in favor of repealing the estate tax and extending the Bush capital-gains tax cuts.
Just this month Coleman and Johnny Isakson sponsored the “Hope Offered through Principled and Ethical Stem Cell Research” bill as an alternative to the Democrats’ attempt to revive the embryonic stem-cell-research bill that President Bush previously vetoed. Coleman explains that he is both “pro-life and pro-science” and that his motivation was to “move beyond the culture wars” by passing a bill that would promote stem-cell research that did not involve embryo destruction. The bill passed 70-28.
Despite these conservative positions, the entirety of Coleman’s votes over the last five years indicate a more moderate record, perhaps more in keeping with his constituency. Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of The Cook Political Report, traces his National Journal rankings (which track a wide range of votes), noting the contrast between his first-year conservative rating of 61 percent and his present rating of 53.8 percent. In 2006 he adhered more closely to the center than all but a few senators, earning on a 50-percent conservative ranking on foreign and economic policy and 58 percent on social issues. The Club for Growth, which looks at a broad range of economic issues, ranked him 48th and 49th among senators in 2005 and 2006; his ranking suffered from his votes against ANWAR and in favor of the 2005 Transportation Department funding bill.
What to make of his record? Coleman describes himself as “problem solver who believes in conservative principles because they work.” He readily concedes that he favors some spending that fiscal conservatives would not. Perhaps his perspective is best understood as a result of his years as Minnesota attorney general and mayor of St. Paul. Powerline’s Hinderacker agrees that, because Coleman began his political life as a Democrat, he lacks the conservative’s innate suspicion of government.
Elected as a Democrat, he says he came to St. Paul when it was a “dead or dying city.” By cutting regulation, taxes, and licensing requirements, combating excessive union demands and encouraging business development, he helped revive the city, which in 2008 will host the Republican National Convention in the Xcel Energy Center he promoted. He jokes that his greatest achievement was securing an NHL franchise — a winning issue in a state where “you can walk on water six months of the year.”
The executive experience certainly had its influence on him: he wishes “there were more former mayors” in Washington who looked at things from “the perspective of getting it done.” He firmly believes that the Republicans lost the majority, not only because of “corruption and competence,” but because “we didn’t produce.” He cites as an example the failure of the House and Senate to agree before the election on a single version of the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act, which opened more than 8.3 million acres in the eastern Gulf of Mexico to oil and natural-gas production and provided revenue for Katrina rebuilding efforts. (The bill passed by unanimous consent in December.)
His concern for governmental efficiency and competence fueled his aggressive investigation of the U.N. Oil for Food scandal. As Chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations he led the investigation and hearings revealing the depth of what he terms the U.N.’s “massive fraud and abuse.” Brett D. Schaefer of the Heritage Foundation commends Coleman, explaining that he and his staff “staff did an enormous service to the U.S. and the U.N. through their work to investigate and pursue the Oil-for-Food scandal. While other House and Senate members were interested and pursued the Oil-for-Food scandal, Senator Coleman and his staff were clearly in the vanguard. Without such outside pressure to help ensure accountability, the Oil-for-Food scandal may have been a minor story quickly forgotten.”
As with every politician in Washington, Iraq is a main concern of his. He is among those who believe that, if America departed precipitously, it “would be a disaster for American foreign policy and the security of the region.” However, he has not unswervingly backed the Bush administration, and in fact took considerable heat from conservatives when he returned from Iraq in December and voiced doubts about the surge. He stresses that his views were shaped strongly by what he saw and by the military leaders he spoke with. Also, the trip left him with skepticism about whether Iraqis were committed to resolving sectarian violence in Baghdad.
Coleman supported Warner’s resolution earlier in the year because, he explains, it raised concerns about the surge while confirming the president’s authority and the commitment to fighting al Qaeda in Anbar province. He voted against the Republicans efforts to filibuster Democratic resolutions because of concern that Republicans appeared to be “against debate.” He then proceeded to vote with the Republican majority on the 50-48 defeat of the Democratic pullout timetable. More recently he voted twice against the Supplemental Defense bill, which he described as a terrible bill that trades “goodies for a timetable for withdrawal.”
“I had a concern about the surge in the absence of an Iraqi commitment to end violence and establish a national oil policy and without a change in the rules of engagement,” he says about his Iraq position. “Now Petraeus is there and is the best damn general we have. We are taking a shot at it. It is not an option to just pull out.”
It’s not clear at all how Coleman’s positions will play out in his upcoming Senate race. Larry Sabato says: “There’s no question that Coleman has one of the toughest races in the nation for a GOP incumbent.” Among his potential opponents are comedian Al Franken and trial lawyer Mike Ciresi. Coleman says he is approaching the election “confident but always with humility.” Although political observers like Duffy and Hinderacker praise him as highly intelligent and a hard worker with keen political skills, Republicans will probably face another tough year in 2008 regardless of their abilities.
Coleman’s best hope may be to draw Franken as his opponent. According to Professor Lawrence Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, “A Franken candidacy would give the senator the opportunity to frame the election as a referendum on his opponent.” Duffy observes that Franken may be too “over the top” and reminiscent of Jesse Ventura, who began as a beloved populist but proved to be an ongoing embarrassment to sober minded Minnesotans.
GOP Minnesota State Chairman Ron Carey is also optimistic, stating that, in addition to great skills as a communicator and being “one of the most personable people in political life,” Coleman enjoys a reputation in Minnesota as an “authentic” person, politically divergent from Paul Wellstone but similarly respected and liked for his candor and ability to “speak from the heart.”
Coleman is taking no chances and already has on hand more than $2.8 million for the election. He thinks Minnesota voters are “smart and get it and if I keep doing my job I’ll be O.K.” Polls in February and March showed him with a healthy lead over both the likely opponents.
Republicans, of course, will come en masse to Minnesota for the GOP convention in 2008. Pundits debate whether the presence of so many conservatives will help or hurt Coleman. Carey points out that they will be coming to Minnesota and meeting at the Excel Energy Center because of the foresight and hard work of a certain St. Paul mayor. Coleman certainly hopes they show their appreciation on Election Day.
Editor’s note: This piece has been corrected since posting.