Decision on Minnesota Senate Seat Goes to Panel of Judges

Former Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.)
Former Senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) (Dawn Villella - AP)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 21, 2009

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Nearly five months after 2.9 million voters cast ballots, the Senate race between Al Franken (D) and Norm Coleman (R) is in the hands of a three-judge panel here after first one candidate and then the other declared victory.

Until the judges rule, perhaps within days, Franken officially has a 225-vote lead, the U.S. Senate has 99 members and Minnesota has a reality show that feels as though it's already in reruns.

"It's way too drawn out," property appraiser Kurt Ophus, 48, said this week. "The people of Minnesota are just really tired of listening to it."

The fight has been arduous for the combatants and tedious for the voters, yet the outcome remains crucial not just for Minnesota but also for President Obama and his opponents.

Senate Republicans are thrilled that the seat remains unfilled, at least by a Democrat. The longer the Democrats lack a 59th vote, the harder it will be for them to prevent filibusters on their most cherished and contentious initiatives.

"The battle in Washington is real. Every day in the Senate without Al Franken is a great day," Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) told a Tulsa audience last week.

"Comments like these show that this is nothing more than politics at its worst," replied Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.).

Franken and Coleman spent $30 million and fought to something like a draw in November. Ahead by 475 votes, Coleman declared victory on Nov. 5 and advised Franken to "step back."

He refused, and an automatic hand recount put Franken ahead by 225 on Jan. 5, prompting the former "Saturday Night Live" comedian to pronounce himself "proud and humbled to stand before you as the next senator from Minnesota."

Not quite. Coleman sued, triggering a seven-week trial that ended with the filing of legal briefs last week. One of Coleman's attorneys, Joe Friedberg, predicted on KFAN radio here that Franken would emerge with a larger lead and that Coleman would appeal.

A number of Republican leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), said Coleman should go to federal court if he loses. That route appears time-consuming -- a potential GOP advantage -- but also expensive.

"At some point, Republican senators have to be concerned with Senator McConnell using their resources on a member who lost in 2008, at the expense of protecting members under fire in 2010," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

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