Republicans look to oust Franken

Republicans are seeking to oust Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who is up for his first reelection after his narrow 2008 win.

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Franken will be a tough candidate — he’s worked hard to ingratiate himself in the state, and his poll numbers look fairly solid. But Republicans hope with the right candidate they can topple the first-term senator.

Reps. Erik Paulsen (R-Minn.) and John Kline (R-Minn.) are two early mentions for the race.

“I'd put Congressmen Paulsen and Kline at the top of the list, they'd both be very strong candidates,” said Brian McClung, who served as former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s (R) deputy chief of staff.

Neither congressman would say for sure what his plans are.

Kline, the chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, said he’s been approached to run for statewide office but hasn’t made any decisions.

“People approach me all the time about running for all sorts of stuff, that doesn't necessarily mean anything and I'm going to keep my options open as we look to what's going to happen in 2014,” he told The Hill. “But as you know, right now we have a pretty big job for the next few weeks.”

Paulsen, a member of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, seemed taken aback when asked whether he'd been asked to challenge Franken in 2014.

"We just got through an election,” Paulsen told The Hill. "I'm sure there will be a long list of candidates but it's early ... there will be a long list of candidates running for Governor too. I'm enjoying being on the Ways and Means Committee in the middle of tax reform so, that's my focus."

Paulsen had $725,000 in the bank for a possible run as of mid-October, while Franken had $1.1 million. Kline, who faced his first competitive reelection campaign in years, had just $114,000 as of mid-October, and may have spent some of that in the final weeks of the campaign.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) is up for reelection the same year, giving up-and-coming Minnesota Republicans two possibilities for a statewide run.

Kline said that regardless of his decision on a Franken-challenge, the Minnesota GOP would find a strong candidate.

"There's no question that the Republicans in Minnesota are going to work to field a strong candidate to run for that Senate seat. We see there's an opportunity there,” he said.

Franken could prove to be tough to beat, however. The former Saturday Night Live star has assiduously worked to establish himself as a workhorse rather than a show horse in the Senate since his narrow recount victory over Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Franken has refused most interview requests from national media outlets and publicly tamped down his funny side while focusing on constituent services. Most recent polls show him in a fairly strong position for reelection in the Democratic-leaning state, with an approval rating around 50 percent.

“Sen. Franken loves his job representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, and looks forward to making his case to his constituents to serve them for another 6 years,” Franken spokesman Ed Shelleby told The Hill.

Minnesota Republicans acknowledge he’ll be difficult to defeat.

“He’s done a good job over the past four years of keeping his head down and not being the center of attention. That will pose some problems for us,” said Cullen Sheehan, a longtime Minnesota GOP operative who ran Coleman’s 2008 Senate campaign.

Sheehan said that while Franken has improved his image in the state since his first campaign and incumbents are tougher to beat, Franken benefitted from a Democratic wave election, helped by high turnout driven by President Obama’s first campaign and antipathy in the state towards President George W. Bush.

“It's never easy to beat an incumbent but… all the things you'd want as a statewide candidate are on your side that weren't in 2008,” Sheehan said. “There's going to be a lot of excitement and enthusiasm on our side and I think a lot of people will line up to take him on, but it's not going to be an easy election.”

Another factor: Minnesota’s state Republican Party, while in better shape than it was a year ago, remains in disarray. The party still has a large level of debt, though it’s slowly paying it off, and Ron Paul backers hijacked the party’s conventions last spring and nominated one of their own over the establishment’s preferred candidate to challenge Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.). That candidate, state Sen. Kurt Bills (R), won just 31 percent of the vote.

Republicans are considering revisions to their nomination process, changing the tradition of the state party choosing its nominees at a convention to having an open primary.

Paulsen could be the GOP’s best chance.

“He could run a very strong campaign — he’s well liked,” said one Democratic strategist who’s worked in Minnesota, comparing him to Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) for his crossover appeal in a blue state. “No one else could beat Franken.”

Pawlenty, who’d been talked about as a possible candidate, took himself out of contention when he accepted a job as head of a powerful lobbying group in late September.

“I’ve given it thought and I’m not doing it,” the former governor and presidential candidate told The Hill on Friday during an interview for C-SPAN. “I’ve already announced publicly many times I’m not running against Sen. Franken or anyone else in 2014. I had my full run in elective office and I’m focused on my new job as the head of the Financial Services Roundtable.”

Coleman and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) have also been mentioned as possible candidates, though a few state Republicans speculated that if Coleman does decide to make another run for office he might be more likely to run for governor, the office he first ran for in 1998.

Multiple Republicans warned that a Bachmann campaign could be disastrous for them, since she’s popular with the base but not well liked statewide. The former presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite barely won reelection this year in the state’s most Republican district, and an October poll from the Democratic Public Policy Polling showed her favorability rating statewide at just 33 percent, with 55 holding unfavorable views of her.

Two other Republican who are widely mentioned as a possible candidates are Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek (R) and former state Rep. Laura Brod (R), who’s on the University of Minnesota’s board of regents. Republican National Committeeman Jeff Johnson is also expected to make a statewide bid, though most think he’ll run for governor and not for Senate.

— Peter Schroeder contributed