ST. PAUL, Minn. – Al Franken barely made it into the Senate the first time, squeaking by with 312 votes after months of recounts and legal skirmishes that left Minnesota Republicans salivating at the prospect of snatching the seat back from the former “Saturday Night Live” star in 2014.
So far, that’s not playing out according to plan.
Four years into his term, Franken barely figures into the GOP’s calculations for trying to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats. Republicans don’t consider him a top target for defeat, and they haven’t found a strong challenger in the Democratic-leaning state.
Should a competitive race not materialize, Democrats say much, if not all, of the credit should go to Franken himself.
To solidify his then-shaky standing, Franken employed a disciplined strategy that started in 2009 when he was declared the victor of a three-way race in which he won less than 42 percent of the vote. Back then, he spoke of not wanting to “waste this chance” and made repeated promises to keep his head down and do the work. He has largely stuck to that vow, avoiding the national spotlight. He rarely talks to the Washington press corps, has shed his comedic persona and focused on policy, working to be taken seriously.
“People have seen that I did what I said I would do. I came to Washington, I put my shoulder to the wheel and I did the work,” Franken said in a recent interview with The Associated Press, expressing optimism that he’ll be re-elected. He punted on the question of whether he’d seek a more prominent national voice in a second term, saying: “I’m more worried about what I’m working on tomorrow.”
The midterm congressional elections are more than a year away. But Republicans already are going after vulnerable Democrats in their quest to gain the six seats they need to return to Senate power. They’re largely focusing on vulnerable Democrats in Republican-tilting states: Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska and Arkansas, as well as swing and conservative states where Democrats are retiring, like Iowa, South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana.
Minnesota GOP Chairman Keith Downey acknowledged that, because of the tight 2008 margin, Republicans initially assumed Franken would be easy to beat in 2014. “People in politics always make too many assumptions about the future, but that was certainly the perspective,” he said.
Today, Downey argues that while the GOP’s job may be harder, Franken still can be overtaken because his support is soft.
All things being equal, Minnesota isn’t an easy place for Republicans to win these days, given its deep history of electing Democrats and the state GOP’s current woes: the debt-plagued party hasn’t won a statewide race since 2006. But Franken’s standing – more than 50 percent of those polled last fall by the Minneapolis Star Tribune approved of the job he’s doing – and fairly weak GOP candidates make it even tougher.
Brian Nick, a political consultant with previous experience at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, acknowledged as much, calling Minnesota a “very, very tough state to win” for his side, with more favorable matchups elsewhere.
A big part of the problem for the GOP: High-profile Republicans don’t want to run.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, the incumbent Franken narrowly beat in 2008, opted out of a rematch, citing the “dysfunction” of Washington. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty got out of politics, taking a job with a Wall Street lobbying group. Reps. Erik Paulsen and John Kline have declined, indicating they could be more effective in the House. And Rep. Michele Bachmann, who isn’t running for re-election, has not shown any interest.
So far, Franken has two definite Republican challengers: Mike McFadden, a businessman and political unknown; and Jim Abeler, an eight-term state representative who’s never run for higher office. Another lawmaker, state Sen. Julianne Ortman, is also considering a bid.
While the opposition party sorts itself out, Franken is doing what he’s done for the past four years: keeping his head down and working on policy that affects seniors, veterans and farmers. That includes what he calls his biggest accomplishment so far: inserting a provision in Obama’s health care overhaul that forces health insurance companies to spend up to 85 percent of premiums directly on health care.
Associated Press reporter Brian Bakst contributed to this report.