Politics

Tina Smith Has Just 10 Months to Keep Her New Job

New Minnesota senator will face voters in November special election

Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, appointed to replace Sen. Al Franken, will face voters in a special election in November. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Tina Smith just got here. And now she has 10 months to try to keep her new job as Minnesota’s junior senator.

She’ll face voters in a November special election to fill out former Democratic-Farmer-Labor Sen. Al Franken’s term. It’s an incredibly condensed timeline for what could be a competitive race in a state Hillary Clinton won by less than 2 points in 2016.

Smith starts with the disadvantages of incumbency — having a day job one thousand miles away from home — without all of the advantages. Her Democratic peers up for re-election this year will have had a full two-year cycle to put together a campaign, not to mention at least six years in the Senate to fundraise and build a brand.

“The focus has been on putting the core infrastructure in place that can support a campaign, scaling very fast,” a close adviser to Smith and her campaign said Wednesday. 

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Just a day after being sworn in, Smith secured the endorsement of abortion rights group EMILY’s List. The Democratic PAC will be working with her campaign in an advisory role and connecting her to its national donor network.

Grassroots Solutions, a Minnesota-based consulting firm that’s worked with Smith and Franken, is helping the campaign get off the ground and will remain engaged in field operations throughout the race. The campaign expects to have a manager and senior staff in place within a few weeks. 

A political operative

Smith has never run on a political ticket by herself. But she starts with a leg up on most first-time candidates. 

“She’s a campaign operative. You cannot place value on what kind of learning curve that helps you overcome,” one Democratic strategist said. “She understands what campaign budgets look like, what field campaigns look like. She also probably understands she’ll be in a call room for 12 hours a day.”

And this isn’t her first short campaign.

When Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone died in a plane crash just 11 days before his 2002 re-election, former Vice President Walter Mondale accepted the DFL nomination. Smith managed his week-long campaign. He lost to Republican Norm Coleman by 2 points.

“She’s been one of the first five folks you call if you’re running a campaign in Minnesota,” former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak said.

Smith served as Rybak’s chief of staff and managed his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Rybak lost the DFL nomination to Mark Dayton, who brought Smith on as his chief of staff in the governor’s office.

She has been an official or unofficial adviser for most elected officials in the state, including DFL Sen. Amy Klobuchar, with whom she’ll be on the ballot in November. (Klobuchar is seeking a third term.) When working as an adviser to Rybak — an early supporter of former President Barack Obama — she was deeply involved in the 2008 presidential primary.

Members of the DFL who have worked with Smith for decades cite her ability to build relationships across political and geographic divides as a skill that will benefit her this year.

“She is a progressive Democrat but has very strong relationships with leaders in business who see a person with a MBA from the Tuck School who’s open to smart partnerships,” Rybak said.

Before politics, she was a marketing executive at General Mills.

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When the I-35 West bridge collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007, Smith was instrumental in connecting Rybak’s office to Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s, with which it had strained relations.

Rybak nicknamed her the “velvet hammer” early on in their working relationship for her ability to deliver tough news with a soft touch.

Throughout Minnesota politics, when staff had difficult news to tell their bosses, they’d call Smith and have her do it. “A politician whisperer,” Rybak called her

But before 2014, when Dayton chose her as his running mate, she’d never been the politician.  

“2014 was really her coming out party, so to speak, as a candidate,” said DFL Chairman Ken Martin, who first met Smith when she managed Mondale’s son Ted’s 1998 gubernatorial campaign.

“She blew everyone away with her natural political instincts and retail abilities,” Martin said. 

Her supporters are optimistic that the travel she undertook as lieutenant governor and prospective gubernatorial candidate, as well as her efforts to expand broadband access, will help inoculate her against charges that she’s a metropolitan progressive who doesn’t understand the state’s rural regions. 

After Dayton announced her appointment to the Senate late last year, Smith took questions from the press about her decision to run in the special election after forgoing a 2018 gubernatorial campaign.

“I shouldn’t be underestimated, and if I weren’t confident, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she told reporters.

GOP attacks

What Democrats think could give Smith a running start — her political  experience — Republicans are looking forward to using against her. 

“It would make a difference if she were going to be a campaign manager. But she’s a candidate. It’s very different,” said Coleman, the former senator. 

“As much as Democrats like to talk up the fact that Smith is the ultimate political insider, that’s not necessarily an advantage to her,” said John Rouleau, the executive director of the Minnesota Jobs Coalition, a conservative political committee.

He’s not convinced her political experience in the state will give her much name recognition. In a live-caller survey of 600 voters conducted by the Tarrance Group for the coalition in March 2017 — when Smith was weighing a gubernatorial bid — more than 80 percent of voters hadn’t heard of her.

In addition to “cronyism and being a political insider,” Rouleau expects Republicans to go after Smith for supporting higher taxes. Social conservatives have already seized on her tenure at Planned Parenthood — She was the vice president for external affairs for the Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota chapters in the early 2000s. 

Republicans don’t yet have a nominee. Whoever runs and wins the endorsement will have an even shorter timeline to launch a campaign, but with the likely advantage of being in the state while Smith is spending most of her time in Washington. 

“It’s why someone like Pawlenty would be ideal candidate,” Coleman said. The former governor was the last Republican to win a statewide election.

GOP Rep. Tom Emmer is interested. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann has said she’s been encouraged to run. State House Speaker Kurt Daudt is another potential contender. State Sen. Karin Housley — the wife of the head coach of the Buffalo Sabres — is already in the race. 

A top-tier Republican candidate has to get in soon, Coleman said, although exactly when depends on who the candidate is. Pawlenty, he said, could wait longer given the name recognition and fundraising base he’d start with.

“But the good news is they’re not running against an incumbent in the true sense of the word,” Coleman said. “It’s not the strongest platform to say you’re going to carry on the Franken legacy.”

Without knowing the matchup, Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rated the race Likely Democratic after Franken announced his resignation.

Eventually, both nominees will have to tailor their priorities to a condensed campaign. “They’re probably not going to do an 87-county tour,” Coleman said. 

If there’s any silver lining to the compressed timeline, it’s that 2018 is already here. With the election just around the corner, it may be easier to engage voters, the senior adviser to Smith’s campaign said.  

But if Smith wins in November, and wants to run for a full term, she’ll have to do this all over again — albeit in two years instead of one.

Franken’s term was supposed to expire in January 2021, which means Smith would face her first re-election in November 2020.

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