NORTHFIELD, Minn. — Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) broke into a spontaneous impression that recalled his days as a madcap comic. Jumping, waving his arms, running in place, the former “Saturday Night Live” actor was pretending to be his political hero, Paul Wellstone, chasing alongside the late senator’s son during a high school cross-country race.
“You can take this guy, you can take him,” Franken said, a deadpan rendering of Wellstone’s famously hyperkinetic personality.
The crowd roared its approval at a college campus rally last week, a rare moment of bellyaching laughter in an otherwise sober 15-minute reflection on Franken’s accomplishments.
Quickly, he returned to the script, one in which he plays the most boring of U.S. senators. Yes, Al Franken is boring, and tactically so, and because he is boring, he appears well on his way to winning reelection.
It’s been this way since the summer of 2008, when a team of Washington political hands took charge of Franken’s struggling Senate bid and decided that a kind of strategic boredom was the way to turn him into a serious politician focused on small-bore policy. He won by 312 votes, but only after an extended recount delayed his swearing-in by six months. Since then Franken has worked to perfect the pose of dull but diligent legislator.
The approach has paid huge rewards: Polls show him holding a double-digit lead over his closest opponent in this year’s campaign.
And in this play-it-safe political era, Franken is not alone. Risk is not en vogue for senators, at least not those facing competitive reelection challenges.
This election season has been defined by candidates, Democrats and Republicans alike, who have run campaigns that strategists like to call “disciplined” but voters might call dull. Democrats have relentlessly stuck to a plan that made little mention of President Obama and cited issues — equal pay for female workers, raising the minimum wage, refinancing college loans — that were drawn up by party operatives in Washington. Republicans have rattled off voting percentages showing how often Democrats have sided with Obama and noted their support of his health-care law.
Few races hinge on personality and character; Iowa’s neck-and-neck Senate contest is a rare exception. Most candidates have gone to great pains to avoid gaffes, fearing that any errant or misspoken phrase would quickly make its way around the political universe on the Twitter jet stream.
Flailing candidates in what should have been easily winnable races — Michigan for Democrats, Kansas for Republicans — urgently received new campaign teams sent from party headquarters on Capitol Hill. The common aim: to instill discipline. In both Michigan and Kansas, the races look more favorable for the incumbent party since the SWAT teams were dispatched.
Some former senators worry that the requirements of today’s politics are draining the chamber of characters, and of its character. Out of concern that any attention could jeopardize reelection, many rank-and-file members do nothing to rock the boat. The result is that, increasingly, the biggest personalities in the Senate come from safely conservative states, such as Texas (Republican Ted Cruz), or safely liberal states, such as Massachusetts (Democrat Elizabeth Warren).
“Doing nothing can be good politics, but it’s horrible policy. Nobody’s making enemies, nobody’s making waves,” said former senator Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who narrowly lost to Franken in 2008.
Franken’s effort to avoid making waves is the most dramatic turnaround by a member of the current Senate. He was part of the original cast of “SNL” in 1975, winning Emmys as one of the show’s lead writers. He frequently appeared on the irreverent “Weekend Update” segment and played Stuart Smalley, the fictional self-help guru. Frequently battling with NBC’s leaders, he once did a segment on how the network’s ratings were an “unequivocal failure,” leading to his first departure from the show.
On a crisp autumn Saturday, more than 400 young activists were drawn to Carleton College to see the new liberal torchbearer in Congress, Warren.
They cheered warmly for Franken, particularly his invocation of Wellstone, the fiery liberal who was a Carleton professor before launching his successful long-shot for the Senate in 1990. But the crowd roared its approval for Warren, whose challenges to the banking industry have turned her into an icon less than two years into her first term.
Some of the Wellstone disciples there Saturday said they understood Franken’s initial approach to politics but yearned for him to play a bigger role if he wins a second term.
“I’d like to see him take more risk. Go for it, don’t hold back,” Paula Manor, 57, an organic corn farmer from Northfield, said.
Wellstone, who died exactly 12 years ago Saturday in a plane crash during his reelection campaign, remains a mythical figure for today’s liberal activists. Franken and Warren, close friends of Wellstone, repeatedly invoked his spirit, and some supporters long for Franken to fill the void left by the former Carleton professor’s death.
Franken “has a great voice, if he would just use it,” said Mary Wood, 93, a retired social worker who was friends with Wellstone in the 1980s.
On the campaign trail, rather than attacking Franken’s comedic past, Republican Mike McFadden has tried to highlight his low profile. “I’m running against someone who has been absolutely invisible,” McFadden told several dozen employees at a food packaging plant in the western suburbs of Minneapolis.
McFadden charges that Franken has been in hiding, both declining to be a leader on major issues such as the battle against the Islamic State and in his accessibility to constituents. The senator does not hold town hall meetings, opting instead for a regular weekly huddle with Minnesotans who visit Washington.
“I’m constantly accessible to the Minnesota press,” Franken said, estimating he has held 1,300 official meetings with constituents. “This is part of what you do as a senator, you go all over the state.”
Franken rejects the idea that he has avoided big issues, saying that he has just avoided the media, particularly out-of-state reporters. “There’s a lot of controversial issues that I took the lead on,” he said, citing gay rights, open access to the Internet and opposing Comcast’s continued growth. “I’m very proud of my record.”
After leaving “SNL” for the final time in 1995, Franken spent the next decade writing books and hosting a radio show that skewered Republicans in sometimes the most personal of terms. (Among his books were the bestseller “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot” and a takedown of Fox News titled “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”)
Franken was a sensation on the far left but anathema to Republicans, and when he moved home to Minnesota few observers took him or his interest in the Senate seriously. His 2008 Senate bid was flagging until Democratic leaders dispatched fresh leadership for the race, including a new campaign manager, Stephanie Schriock, a seasoned operative who is now president of Emily’s List, the influential PAC devoted to electing women who support abortion rights. His press shop was run by Eric Schultz, who came up in the hard-charging media-relations office of Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and is now the deputy White House press secretary.
Franken turned up in such places as the Wagon Wheel Cafe in Mankato, where he listened to southern Minnesota farmers talk agriculture policy. He ran a relentlessly unfunny campaign aimed at combating the GOP argument that his past as a satirist made him unfit for office.
In Washington, Franken took the same approach: No national limelight, no Sunday talk show appearances, no hallway interviews with the congressional press corps. His legislative focus has been telecommunications. Franken is considered the liberal champion of “net neutrality,” the effort to ensure that Internet service providers do not grant special access to larger Web firms, and he has been the staunchest congressional opponent of Comcast’s expansive growth, including its 2009 purchase of NBC Universal and its pending acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Some industry lobbyists see his attack on the cable giant as a way to torment the owners of his former employer, NBC.
Supporters and critics can sound oddly similar when describing his first term.
“Nose down, worked hard,” said Alana K. Bassin, a Minneapolis lawyer. “He’s kept his head down,” said Marc Anderson, president of a food packaging plant in the western suburbs.
Bassin is a proud supporter who attended a women’s issues forum in St. Paul for the Democrat’s reelection bid, praising Franken as “an everyday person.”
Anderson, who hosted McFadden at his manufacturing plant, admits that the senator has avoided making a show of himself. “He hasn’t done anything to really screw up,” Anderson said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the role Al Franken played on the Weekend Update segment of “Saturday Night Live.” The story also had a misspelling of Eric Schultz’s last name.