For the past two years, political commentators have been predicting that the 2008 U.S. Senate race in Minnesota would be close and that Republican incumbent Norm Coleman was vulnerable. That made a lot of sense, considering that in the 2006 race Democrat Amy Klobuchar had clobbered GOP veteran congressman Mark Kennedy here in a race for an open seat, anti-Bush sentiment in the state was increasing, well-known TV comedian Al Franken was likely to be Coleman's challenger, and the Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama was initially very popular.
As in so many political races this year, however, reasonable predictions have turned out, so far, off the mark.
While President Bush remains quite unpopular here, the situation in Iraq (which has driven much of this sentiment) has faded from the center of the political debate. And after being close to the administration for four years, Senator Coleman has put considerable distance between himself and many of Bush's unpopular policies.
At the same time, unlike Mark Kennedy two years ago, Coleman has sprinted to the political center.
Al Franken, who has spent most of his professional life making fun of others, has found himself potentially the political joke in Minnesota this year. His failure so far to make himself competitive against Coleman has strategists and candidates for the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party (the Minnesota Democrats) worried that he will be a drag on the entire ticket.
Franken has mostly himself to blame for his predicament. Republican bloggers and the state party did turn up damaging information about him, including his failure to pay workman's compensation for employees of the corporation he owns and the failure to pay income taxes to at least 17 states over several years (he claims to have paid all of his Minnesota taxes). Although serious, these revelations alone would not have been so damaging if Franken had not first denied them and then appeared to try to cover them up.
Perhaps more damaging in this state where a large number of voters are rural or suburban, and conservative, are videotapes and transcripts of Franken's TV shows, scripts, books, and speeches. These show him to have been an on-the-edge comedian and writer whose humor is very Hollywood and New York City, where he has lived most of his professional life. It is not apparently a humor that appeals to most Minnesotans.
Particularly unhelpful have been his numerous jokes denigrating women. At the DFL state convention that endorsed him, Franken appeared to apologize for some of these jokes, but the state GOP continues to roll out new tapes with controversial humor. Two of the most prominent DFL women officeholders, U.S. senator Amy Klobuchar and 4th District congresswoman Betty McCollum, denounced Franken's humor and refused to endorse him. Now, days before the September 9 primary, they have made perfunctory endorsements, but clearly there is little enthusiasm for him among many DFL women activists.
In an appearance in northern Minnesota, Franken was asked to comment on Coleman's efforts to build a hospital in the area. Franken offered that such projects were "small bore." The local mayor then went on the radio in a Coleman ad, heard throughout the region, saying that, for local residents, the hospital was very important, and they were grateful to Coleman for enabling it.
Political missteps like this have marked Franken's campaign from the beginning. What he has done successfully is raise a great deal of money. On the other hand, the Franken campaign has also spent a great deal, in contrast with the Coleman campaign, which has a decided advantage in cash on hand.
To complicate matters for Franken, at the last moment, lawyer Priscilla Lord Faris filed in the DFL primary, and she has been running TV ads sharply critical of Franken. A member of a prominent DFL family, Faris has no political experience, and is not expected to come close, but she provides an outlet for DFL voters to express their dissatisfaction with Franken, and if she gets a notable vote in the primary, it could be embarrassing for the endorsed candidate.
The Franken campaign has criticized Coleman for his ties to President Bush, and for the circumstances surrounding his rented apartment in Washington. Coleman, in his first four years in office, was a reliable vote for the administration, but as the war in Iraq became problematic and unpopular, Coleman began moving away from Bush. At the same time, Coleman also cast a notable vote against drilling for oil in Alaska, a move hailed by the state Sierra Club and other environmentalists. That vote is not so popular today, but Franken is in no position to attack Coleman on the issue.
Coleman leases a small one-room apartment in the basement of a Washington townhouse for $600 a month from one of his political friends, who is seen as doing the senator a favor. Still, the issue does not seem to have legs. The rent may be somewhat below market rate, but the issue only highlights that Coleman is one of the least affluent members of the Senate and that he has not enriched himself after three decades of public service, including years as state solicitor general and mayor of St. Paul.
Recent polls indicate that Franken is in deep trouble. While the race started close, Coleman now has nearly a double-digit lead. The automated-telephone Rasmussen Poll continues to show the race as tight, but the most recent poll, according to Rasmussen, indicates that Coleman is beginning to pull away. A newer MPR/Humphrey Institute poll shows the race as a draw, but overweights DFL voters and underweights independents, and is considered an outlier.
After the September primary, there will be less than two months to go. The Franken campaign has money in the bank and is undoubtedly counting on a large infusion of funds from Senator Schumer and his Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
The fact that the race between Barack Obama and John McCain in the state is now considered competitive is more bad news for Franken, who may not be able to count on the Illinois senator's coattails. There will also be an Independence party (IP) candidate in November who is likely to draw 5 percent or more of the vote. Historically, IP candidates draw significantly more votes from DFL voters than Republican voters.
The Franken campaign has new leadership and is expected to go heavily on the attack against Coleman in the closing days of the campaign. The question is whether Minnesota voters, already soured on Franken, will see these attacks as valid or as desperate.
Negative ads do work, although in "nice" Minnesota, they have their limits. Both candidates have high name recognition, and Minnesotans are paying attention to the race. But, in the end, it will likely be how voters feel about the two men, and not any campaign strategies, that determine the outcome. Franken's controversies and personality have made him the issue. Anything can happen in politics, but if Coleman and his record are not the issue, it is very difficult to see how he can be defeated in November, or even how the race can be close.
Barry Casselman writes a syndicated column for the Preludium News Service. He lives in Minneapolis.