Déjà Vu in Minnesota Senate Race?
Al Franken knows the story — just not from this side.
In 2008, a first-time candidate dogged by his career history faced a formidable incumbent dragged down by an unpopular second-term president. The result: now-Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., defeated then-Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican, in a shockingly close race that only ended after a months-long contentious recount and legal battle.
Now Coleman’s hand-picked candidate wants to return the favor in 2014. Franken will face a wealthy investment banker and first-time candidate, Mike McFadden, in November — and this time, he’s the senator battling an unpopular president’s drag on the ballot.
“The atmosphere right now is pretty toxic,” Coleman said in a recent phone interview. “This is a time when it’s good to not be of Washington. Mike is part of a solution, and Franken is part of the problem.”
And just like Coleman’s race six years ago, the contest is expected to be much closer than originally predicted — though recent polls show Franken still holds an advantage.
Just months ago, many operatives predicted Franken would coast to re-election without a serious challenger. Both national and local media outlets noted several high profile Minnesota Republicans took a pass on the race.
Now, multiple strategists from both parties predict a 2-point race by Labor Day.
The shift is mostly due to McFadden’s surprise win at his party’s endorsement convention a month ago. His most serious primary challengers dropped out of the race after that — months before the Aug. 12 primary — making McFadden the de facto GOP nominee earlier than anticipated.
“The whole nature of this race changed dramatically just a couple of weeks ago when Mike got the endorsement,” said Coleman. “The endorsement was a game changer.”
Free of a taxing primary, McFadden can spend the summer honing his general election message and raising money to compete with Franken. His outright win caught Democrats off guard.
“[Franken’s] entire campaign strategy was based on . . . the primary,” said a senior Democratic strategist with ties to the state.
Since then, an automated public survey showed Franken with a single-digit lead. A Survey USA poll showed Franken leading by 6 points among likely voters in early June.
Democrats, meanwhile, have made it clear how they plan to win the tight race: attacking McFadden’s past career as out of step with Minnesota values. Sound familiar?
In 2008, Franken, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member and Air America Radio show host, weathered repeated attacks on his past work, including tax problems, drug history, and a 2000 satire piece he wrote for Playboy on sex robots.
Now Democrats plan to target McFadden’s work as an investment banker and co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market.
“Mike McFadden’s business dealings and putting profits over Minnesota jobs is going be a big problem for him,” said Justin Barasky, national press secretary for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, in an interview with Roll Call. “He reminds people of Mitt Romney.”
The McFadden campaign has addressed the charges proactively, hosting informational sessions with reporters to explain the difference between McFadden’s role as an investment banker and Romney’s job as a venture capitalist. Revelations that Franken owned a small stake in McFadden’s company further complicated the narrative.
“Democrats are wrong, and they don’t have the facts on their side,” said Tom Erickson, campaign communications director for McFadden.
Democrats, though, show no sign of relenting.
“You will hear from people who have been impacted by Mike McFadden,” said Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party Chairman Ken Martin in a June 24 interview with Roll Call.
While Democrats focus on McFadden’s background, Republicans say President Barack Obama’s shrinking popularity could give Franken the kind of problems Coleman experienced with then-President George W. Bush in 2008. A recent survey by the Democratic autodial firm Public Policy Polling showed Obama with a 44 percent approval rating in Minnesota, down from 50 percent in May of 2013.
Privately, Republicans appreciate the irony.
“Every sentence about Norm Coleman in 2008 was a verb, a noun and George W. Bush,” mused one former Coleman adviser.
Ben Golnik, former executive director of the Republican Party of Minnesota, said he thinks the Republicans’ goal in the state will be to nationalize the race as much as possible.
“As President Obama’s numbers have dropped, it’s gonna be harder for Franken to decouple himself from that,” Golnik said.
There’s one final parallel to 2008: These two candidates boast remarkable fundraising acumen and will draw enormous resources to the state. The 2008 Senate race marked the most expensive in the country that year.
Franken has already amassed a nearly $6 million war chest. McFadden has raised more than $2 million for his campaign so far, and local Republicans say he will raise enough to make the race competitive. He has not yet donated a significant amount to his own campaign, but has the resources to do so.
For Minnesota Republicans, McFadden’s fundraising prowess is a welcome change. The Minnesota Republican state party is weighed down by $500,000 in debt, and their 2012 nominee for Senate raised less than $1 million.
“We’ve got a guy who can raise millions, when sometimes our candidates can barely pay for enough gas in the tank to drive around the state,” said Brian McClung, a former top aide to former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who later added he was not referring to a specific Republican candidate.
And though he wont be on the ballot, Coleman — chairman of the board of the American Action Network — is expected to play a recurring role in this race by using his sway with national Republicans to focus resources on the race.
“I’m going to do everything I can to ensure that [McFadden] wins,” said Coleman.