In their long-shot quest to defeat Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), national Republicans are turning to the ideological doppelganger of the man he narrowly defeated six years ago.
Knocking off the freshman senator will be no easy task. But Republicans are hoping Mike McFadden (R) — a centrist, pro-business candidate in the mold of former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) — gives them a shot at defeating Franken, who narrowly edged Coleman out six years ago.
“Politics is the art of the possible; it’s not the art of the pure. We’ve got to get things done,” he said last week in a meeting with Washington, D.C., reporters.
Republicans acknowledge it will be difficult to beat Franken. The former “Saturday Night Live” writer and actor has worked hard to transform his image from lightweight comedian to a serious lawmaker.
Franken has avoided the national press and focused on education and military issues as a senator, which has helped his in-state standing. His approval rating rose steadily for much of his term. But Republicans believe the Democratic wave that swept Franken into office six years ago might be matched by a Republican riptide this cycle.
“[Franken’s] kept his head down and done the people’s business. But if we have a cycle which isn’t as good for Democrats ... I do think Franken’s seat is up for grabs,” said Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota’s Smart Politics blog.
McFadden, who until recently was co-CEO of the investment firm Lazard Middle Market, paints himself as an outsider uninterested in partisan warfare during his first run for office. In an hour-long conversation, he played up his work with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, a private Catholic school he works with in Minneapolis, and spent less time talking about his business career.
The Republican held up the school’s near-perfect graduation rate, despite its low-income student body as evidence the country can change, saying he tears up every time he attends the school’s college celebrations.
“So when people say social mobility doesn’t exist anymore, when they say the American Dream doesn’t exist for a large segment of the population, I don’t accept it,” he said.
McFadden sought to distance himself from hard-line conservatives, talking about appealing to Minnesota’s large swath of populist voters and pitching a “big tent” message.
“I believe in a limited but effective government,” he said at one point.
Republicans believe he could help right the ship after some very rough years for the GOP in the state.
“Temperamentally, Mike’s exactly the type of Republican who’s been successful in Minnesota,” said Brian McClung, a former senior adviser to former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R). “His approach and his philosophy have some of the same characteristics as Sen. Coleman’s.”
The state GOP has been in a rapid decline since Coleman’s loss. In a good year for Republicans nationally, they lost a close governor’s race in 2010 after nominating a hard-line social conservative. The state party has struggled to make ends meet as they were torn asunder by libertarians, social conservatives and business Republicans.
Establishment Republicans are now rallying around McFadden, who faces three other Republicans for the nomination. He has Coleman’s enthusiastic blessing, as well as endorsements from former GOP Sens. Rudy Boschwitz and Rod Grams.
“Minnesotans are center-right. They’re conservative on economic issues; they’re a little more progressive on social issues, and McFadden is a good conservative with a private sector background,” Coleman told The Hill. “He, by far, has the best chance of winning this race.”
McFadden has gotten off to a quick fundraising start with $1.7 million in the bank after four months in the race. That’s much more than his opponents but doesn’t come close to Franken’s $4.8 million war chest.
McFadden will still have to survive the primary but pledged to continue running, even if he doesn’t win the state party’s endorsement at a May statewide convention.
His lack of policy specifics could be his Achilles’s heel — Democrats have been slamming him for lacking issue depth.
He repeatedly attacked Franken on ObamaCare and slammed the law’s medical device tax, saying it would be devastating to Minnesota’s robust industry.
Franken voted for the law but has since pushed to repeal the medical device tax.
When asked about an alternative, however, McFadden breezed through GOP talking points about a “market-based solution,” “reasonable tort reform” and allowing companies to sell health insurance across state lines. McFadden spent much time discussing the need for education reform.
“Sen. Franken is proud of his work on behalf of the people of Minnesota, which includes working to dramatically overhaul No Child Left Behind so it works for Minnesota students and teachers, and standing up for the medical device industry, which supports more than 30,000 Minnesota jobs,” said Franken campaign spokeswoman Alexandra Fetissoff.
McFadden repeatedly hedged away from social issues during his D.C. visit, though he said he was comfortable with Minnesota’s law legalizing gay marriage.
When pressed, he described himself as “pro-life” but said his focus was “getting kids educated.” McFadden said he supported exemptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and when asked about Sen. Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) bill to ban abortion after 20 weeks, said he’d have to “spend more time” studying it.
Without many positions to hit the political neophyte on though, Democrats have been seeking to tar McFadden as an out-of-touch millionaire.
“Mike McFadden made his millions on the backs of Minnesotans he helped fire,” said Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman Justin Barasky. “He makes Norm Coleman look good.”