Al Franken: Bulletproof?

January 9, 2013

The National Journal today is out with a look at the 2014 Minnesota Senate race.

The newsiest bit is former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) making clear he wants no part of a rematch with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after Franken defeated him by just 312 votes in 2008.

And in fact, Coleman seems to think Franken will be pretty hard to beat:

"You can't play handball in an open field. At this point there's been no candidate," said former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, who lost to Franken in the 2008 race. "He's been pretty much invisible. In that sense he hasn't created a lot of enemies. I don't know if that's his strategy, but it's a pretty good strategy if it is.”

The list of potential, formidable candidates is short.  Coleman, in an interview with National Journal, categorically said he wasn’t going to run for the Senate in 2014, denying the GOP one of its best-known possible challengers.

Coleman's candid take is on-point, in that for the GOP this is all about getting a qualified challenger. But there aren't many that come to mind.


Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

The three most oft-mentioned names come from the House:

* Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.), who hails from the greatest district and the greatest city in the country, sounds like he is open to running. In fact, after a local report last week said he wouldn't run, Paulsen's office sought to clarify that he hadn't, in fact, ruled it out. But while Paulsen is well-respected, he's been a pretty quiet member of Congress, and with a moderate reputation, you have to wonder whether he would have some trouble in the primary in today's Republican Party.

* Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.) is cut from similar cloth — a quiet member of Congress (perhaps best known for carrying the nuclear football for Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan) who also comes from a competitive suburban district. He's more conservative than Paulsen and may not have as much of a problem in the primary, but Kline has shown little interest in advancing beyond the House and would be giving up the chairmanship of the House Education committee.

* Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) would likely be a disaster for the party. While she would stand a great chance of winning the primary, she's not the right fit for a statewide race in this blue-hued state (she's got very poor numbers statewide).

Beyond that trio, the GOP struggled to recruit a big-name candidate in an open 2010 governor's race against a less-than-stellar Democratic field. And in fact, despite making huge gains in the state legislature that year, they lost all four constitutional statewide offices, depriving them of an obvious next-in-line recruit for future governor and Senate campaigns.

The party also lost lots of state legislative seats in the 2012 election and its majorities in both chambers. And it's rare to see state legislators jump straight to the Senate. (What's more, there's also the option of running against Dayton in 2014.)

Combine all that with Franken's 52 percent approval rating in a recent Star Tribune poll, and you've got a recipe for reelection.

But this is still Al Franken, and there will be plenty of GOP outside groups that will want to make this race a priority. What's more, he was only elected with 42 percent of the vote in a three-way race in 2008 — a very good year for Democrats — so there are plenty of voters that didn't vote Franken in 2008 that he would have to win over in a one-on-one race.

And while Franken has been pretty focused and quiet as a senator, it's much more difficult to be that focused and quiet when you're got a real reelection campaign on your hands.

The onus is on the GOP to find the kind of candidate who can force the issue. At this point, it's not clear that that candidate will step forward.

Correction: This post initially said that Republicans still controlled both chambers of the state legislature. They lost both in 2012.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix, the Post’s top political blog.
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