Is Al Franken vulnerable?

Lauren Schneiderman

After winning by just 312 votes in 2008, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) sought to keep his head down and shed his comedian persona. 

But as the one-time funny man heads into a reelection contest this year, Republicans are hoping there is one thing he can’t shake: President Obama’s unpopularity.

Minnesota is not at the forefront of battleground state talk, as the GOP tries to take back the Senate. It has gone for Democratic presidential candidates in every election since 1976. There is a history of Republican governors and senators, though, like Tim Pawlenty and Norm Coleman, who battled Franken to the recount last time around.

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Add in Obama’s low approval rating in the traditionally blue state — 43 percent in an April Suffolk University poll — and a Republican nominee, Mike McFadden, seeking to project a non-fiery, problem-solver image, and there is a real test for Franken’s transformation into a low-key workman.

“Al Franken’s gonna have a fight on his hands. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that,” said Larry Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota and director of its Center for the Study of Politics and Governance. 

For Republicans, he said, “what they want is McFadden to be a passive, pleasant receptacle for anti-Obama votes.”

To protect his advantage, Franken, once a "Saturday Night Live" star and unabashedly partisan radio host, must build off his quiet record in the Senate to keep the race about him, not Obama.

His ads have touted his results on issues such as workforce training and food safety. His DFL convention video features an interview with a woman who touts the “seriousness” he brings to his job as senator.

“I think people had a lot of doubts about whether he was going to be a serious senator or not,” said a Minnesota Democratic operative, adding, there is “no doubt about that now.”

“What you might have heard from his radio show a long time ago, you just don’t see or hear that anymore,” the operative said.

Republicans, however, turn Franken’s low-profile against him.

“The most positive thing that someone says about him is that he exceeds expectations,” Coleman, who lost to Franken in a protracted recount in 2008 — a good year for Democrats — said in an interview. “People thought he would be fighting with everybody, and instead he’s been quiet. 

“Al Franken has been the quiet Al Franken, but there’s no record of accomplishment,” he added.

To contrast that image, Republicans have turned to McFadden, a wealthy businessman and former co-CEO of Lazard Middle Market, a Minneapolis-based investment bank.

His campaign is working to counter expected attacks on McFadden’s background, similar to those used against Mitt Romney in 2012. The campaign provided Minnesota Public Radio with Lazard’s contract language saying it has no role in decisions to fire people at client companies.

McFadden has focused his campaign on his opponent, though, seeking to link Franken and Obama together. His two TV ads have both centered on repealing ObamaCare, a law Franken for.

In the Suffolk poll, 41 percent said the law was good for Minnesota, while 45 percent said it was bad. 

One ad features McFadden’s role as a youth football coach. “Dad. Coach. Businessman,” it reads, over kids playing football, before calling for stopping “out-of-control spending” and saying “ObamaCare needs to be sacked.”

 “I have yet to see [Franken] run an ad about ObamaCare,” McFadden spokesman Tom Erickson said.

Asked if McFadden supports the expansion of Medicaid in Minnesota under the law, Erickson said the candidate is “still looking into it.”

Moving beyond ObamaCare, the McFadden campaign says Franken voted with Obama 97 percent of the time.

Democrats counter with their strategy of keeping Senate races away from being a national referendum on Obama.

"This campaign is going to be a choice between two candidates — with different records and different visions for Minnesota and the country,” Franken campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff wrote in an email. “Minnesotans are going to judge Sen. Franken on what he has done for them.”

She pointed to his work on college affordability, taking on Wall Street credit rating agencies and helping kids with mental illness as strengths for Franken.

Fetissoff did not respond to a follow-up email asking if Franken would campaign in support of ObamaCare and his voting record alongside the president. 

Democrats have honed in on issues of their own, and are now hitting McFadden on them. 

They pounced on McFadden’s comment that he would choose to build the Keystone pipeline with Chinese steel if it is cheaper than American steel.

Democrats, seeking to woo women and independent voters, also point to McFadden saying he was pleased the Supreme Court “stood for religious freedom” in the controversial Hobby Lobby case, ruling that some companies can decline to offer coverage for contraceptives for religious reasons.

McFadden does support making contraception available over the counter.

There is added controversy over Democrats’ third main critique, that McFadden opposes having a federal minimum wage.

“It makes much more common sense to me that it’s something that’s decided locally as opposed to at the federal level,” McFadden told Minnesota’s WCCO radio in April. “The idea that you have one wage that is applied across the whole country doesn't make sense to me.” 

Since then, the McFadden campaign has said he does support a federal minimum wage, and charges that he does not are simply not true.

McFadden still has a ways to go if he is going to claim victory in November. Every poll this year except one has given Franken a double-digit lead. But McFadden is still making himself known, and some polls in the summer of 2008 had Coleman up by double digits before he went on to lose.

So far, Franken has been helped by his ability to keep hammering his message, said Jacobs, the political scientist.

“For a guy who made a living with improvisation and speaking his mind at will, it’s almost unbelievable how on message he’s been,” Jacobs said.