Franken Regains Footing

Posted September 10, 2008 at 6:59pm

Is comedian Al Franken (D) making a comeback?

That’s what Democrats are hoping now that Tuesday’s primary has officially named the former “Saturday Night Live” star as their nominee against Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Democrats see Franken in a better position to take on Coleman than a few months ago, when his campaign was dragging from months of bad headlines.

“I would say the Franken campaign was on life-support back two months ago,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at University of Minnesota. “He was just hammered by serial bad news, and he survived that.”

After surprising national Democrats with a well-run campaign in 2007, it was revealed in early 2008 that Franken incorrectly paid both his personal and corporation’s taxes. Republicans also brought to light some of Franken’s past satirical writings that many — including some Democrats — publicly said were offensive.

According to a source close to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, there were discussions in July about Democrats calling for Franken to step aside if he couldn’t get within striking distance of Coleman by Labor Day.

But now, according to the same source, the consensus is that he will forge a formidable challenge.

A Minnesota Public Radio and Humphrey Institute poll showed Franken leading Coleman, 41 percent to 40 percent, among 763 likely voters surveyed Aug. 7-17. Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley, who served briefly in the Senate in late 2002, received 8 percent, and 11 percent were undecided in the poll, which had a 3.6-point margin of error.

Still, Republicans pointed to Franken’s 65 percent primary showing Tuesday as proof that he’s still not a serious candidate. Attorney Priscilla Lord Faris (D), in a last-minute self-funded campaign, waged a primary bid against Franken, who had the endorsement of the state party, and received 30 percent of the vote.

Jacobs warned that though Faris might have performed well because she has a well-known name in Democratic circles, Franken nonetheless has a problem uniting the base.

“I think there is a confirmation that there is about a third of Democrats who have reservations about Al Franken,” Jacobs said. “We’ve seen that in the polls consistently throughout the summer. … If Al Franken were able to unify Democrats, he’d probably win.”

Coleman’s campaign pointed out that in the primary, Franken ran behind Faris in several counties. In a public memo, campaign manager Cullen Sheehan wrote that the primary results “shows serious trouble ahead for” Franken.

“Simply put, there is a large portion of Democrats who simply will not support Al Franken and will likely be voting for Norm Coleman or (Independent) Dean Barkley in November,” Sheehan wrote.

But Franken’s biggest problem might not be Coleman, but rather Barkley, a former top aide to former Gov. Jesse Ventura (I). Barkley won his Independence Party primary Tuesday evening.

“Dean Barkley, of course, is going to be a bit of a challenge for us,” Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) said.

But even McCollum, who earlier this year led the pack of Democrats critical of Franken’s written satire, expressed confidence in his chances for November. McCollum endorsed Franken in August.

“I’ve always believed that Al Franken had a chance to win this election,” McCollum said. “Always.”

But McCollum pointed out that turnout operations are difficult to maneuver in a state that has 80 percent voter turnout in presidential election years.

Yet in the primary, it appears Democrats had a numbers advantage both this year and in the 2006 cycle. On Tuesday, about 251,000 Democrats showed up to the polls to vote in the Senate primary compared with about 143,000 Republicans. In 2006, even more Democrats turned out — about 318,500 — in the contest that nominated now-Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D), compared with about 163,000 Republicans who voted in the GOP primary for then-Rep. Mark Kennedy (R).

Franken spokeswoman Colleen Murray said Tuesday’s turnout shows Franken is in a strong spot for the fall.

“Al Franken’s significant margin of victory plus the fact that nearly twice as many Democrats as Republicans turned out to vote yesterday equals big trouble for Norm Coleman,” Murray said.