Franken replacement looks to hang on to seat for Dems

Franken replacement looks to hang on to seat for Dems
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Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith (D) is set to join the U.S. Senate next year, taking the seat left open by the resignation of former Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenTrump's new labor chief alarms Democrats, unions Al Franken: It's time to start taking Trump 'literally' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Mexican officials scramble to avoid Trump tariffs MORE (D). 

Many assumed that Smith would only hold the seat temporarily until the 2018 special election, where voters would choose her successor. But when Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton (D) appointed her in December, she signaled her intention to run in that special election and is poised to run with virtually unanimous support within her party. 

That would make her the favorite to win the seat in 2018, even as Republicans look to flip the seat.

Dayton tapped his number-two to replace Franken, who will resign after multiple accusations of sexual harassment and groping. Smith will be sworn in on Jan. 3, after Franken officially resigns. 

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Smith has been a close confidante of Dayton’s since joining his gubernatorial campaign in 2010, then working as his chief of staff after the race.

Now she’ll serve as the state’s junior senator through the special election November 2018 special election, where she has a chance to win the right to serve out the final two years of Franken’s term.

Smith will bring a “very different temperament” to the seat, Carleton College political science professor Steven Schier told The Hill.

“Al Franken is an outspoken partisan who really endeared himself to his own party’s base, but had limited relations with members of the opposition party,” Schier said. “Tina Smith is very different. She’s been a policy leader for Gov. Dayton, centrally involved in negotiations with Republican leaders in the legislature.” 

Before the sexual misconduct allegations surfaced, Franken’s future in the Senate seemed secure. Most members of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farm-Labor (DFL) Party — the state’s equivalent of the Democratic Party — assumed that only a presidential bid would take Franken out of the seat.

Before Dayton announced Smith’s appointment to the seat, Minnesota Democrats told The Hill that they saw Smith as merely a caretaker choice until the special election. Much of the real Democratic speculation about the upcoming special election centered on state Attorney General Lori Swanson, Rep. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonFormer Sanders aides launch consulting firm Minnesota AG will defend state's abortion restrictions despite personal views Hillicon Valley: House panel advances election security bill | GOP senator targets YouTube with bill on child exploitation | Hicks told Congress Trump camp felt 'relief' after release of Clinton docs | Commerce blacklists five Chinese tech groups MORE and Rep. Tim WalzTimothy (Tim) James WalzMinnesota program will pay homeowners to transform lawns into bee gardens as species inches closer to extinction Minnesota governor signs law making marital rape illegal New governors chart ambitious paths in first 100 days MORE, who is in the midst of a bid for governor.

But while Dayton’s decision to select Smith wasn’t a surprise, her decision to run again in 2018 has caught some observers off guard. 

“It is up to Minnesotans to decide for themselves who they want to complete Sen. Franken’s term. They will make this decision in a special election next November,” Smith said in a December press conference where she accepted Dayton’s appointment."

“I will run in that election and I will do my best to earn Minnesotans’ support. And I believe the best way to do that is to be the best senator that I can be.”

That declaration changed the calculus for other potential candidates, prompting prominent members of the DFL and politicians thought to be considering bids of their own to back Smith instead.

Ellison told The Associated Press that “she’s going to get a running start by being appointed by the governor, and all of us are going to gather around her.”

A spokesman for Walz’s gubernatorial campaign shared that same sentiment with the AP, stating that Walz would support Smith’s 2018 bid.

But even if Smith runs unopposed in the primary, Republicans are cautiously optimistic about their chances in a state where President TrumpDonald John TrumpUS-Saudi Arabia policy needs a dose of 'realpolitik' Trump talks to Swedish leader about rapper A$AP Rocky, offers to vouch for his bail Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE made a surprisingly strong showing in the 2016 election. 

Former president Obama won the state by about 8 points in both 2008 and 2012. But Democratic presidential nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonMatt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' What to expect when Mueller testifies: Not much McConnell challenger faces tougher path after rocky launch MORE won the state by about 1.5 points in 2016.

Republicans don’t have a top-shelf candidate yet. But the spotlight is on former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), who many Republicans say has the resume and the fundraising chops to mount the most competitive race.

A Pawlenty bid would likely give Smith her hardest challenge. Even in that case, though, Democrats are optimistic that the anti-Trump headwinds nationally and the state’s Democratic leanings will help hold the seat. 

There’s also hope that Democratic enthusiasm for the governor’s race, as well as Minnesota Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy Jean KlobucharDemocratic strategist predicts most 2020 candidates will drop out in late fall The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump hits media over 'send her back' coverage Protect American patients and innovation from a harmful MedTech Tax increase MORE’s (D)reelection bid, will help boost turnout for Democratic candidates across the ballot.

Since the 2018 special election only grants the winner the right to serve out Franken’s full term through 2020, Smith would have to run again two years later if she wins in 2018. 

Two statewide elections in two years would give Smith, who has limited electoral experience, a crash course in campaigning.

“She’s unproven,” Schier said. "She’s only run once and that was on a ticket with Dayton, so we don’t really know what Minnesotans will think of her and how well she will run.”