WASHINGTON — On Tuesday morning, Washington woke up to a rare sight: Senator Al Franken gracing the front page of Politico, the daily bible of the D.C. establishment.
As Franken will tell you — and the D.C. press corps knows well — the junior senator from Minnesota has been notoriously reluctant to seek out or respond to the attention of the national press. But that could change: Franken, bolstered by a big re-election victory in 2014, may finally be seeking the spotlight in a new role — as a leading fundraiser, cheerleader, and all-around asset for the Democratic Party.
The thrust of the Politico story was that Franken’s mission is simple: to return the Senate to Democratic control. But Franken’s message is less striking for what it says than where he chose to deliver it — in a D.C.-focused publication few Minnesotans probably read.
So why is Franken raising his national profile — and why now?
A weight lifted
In an interview with MinnPost, Sen. Franken cautioned against reading too much into his decision to grant an interview to Politico. (He added: “I didn’t expect I’d make the cover.”)
“I realized when I was doing an interview to Politico that was focused on what I’m doing this cycle for my colleagues and for other Democrats who are running for Senate that’s what it’d be about and that’s what people would take from it,” Franken said.
Franken simply emphasized his long-running history of politically and financially supporting other Democrats: “It’s really about something I’ve done before I ran for office, which is help like-minded people get elected,” he said.
That point is true enough: in 2005, Franken established his Midwest Values PAC as a conduit for receiving and contributing campaign dollars. He says he was fundraising for Democrats as far back as 1994. Since its inception, Midwest Values has raised over $5 million for other Democrats, and since becoming a senator, Franken has traveled the country appearing at fundraisers. He’s long been sought after by candidates nationwide, owing to his celebrity status in the worlds of politics and entertainment.
Even for a relatively active member of the fundraising circuit, Franken — as the Politico story promised — figures to have a banner year in 2016. For one, a major personal weight has been lifted off his shoulders: after spending much of his first term in the shadow of a close, 300-vote victory over Norm Coleman, Franken cruised to a 10-point re-election victory in 2014. The electoral microscope is off him until 2020, and he can devote substantial energy toward raising cash not for himself, but for other people.
The 2014 victory, Franken suggests, gives him more credibility when campaigning for Democrats around the country. “It’s about the values I campaigned on, and I won by a sizeable majority by being true to myself…It’s really about continuing the values I’ve talked about in this last campaign, and the work I’ve been doing,” he said.
Because of that, it was an ideal year for Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee brass to recruit Franken as a top fundraiser. “Every new DSCC chairman comes to me, and maybe doesn’t know that I did this in ‘12 and ‘10 as well,” Franken said. Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the current DSCC chair and Franken’s neighbor in the Hart Senate Office Building, came to him this year. “He said, ‘Will you do it?’ and I said, ‘Yep,’ ” Franken said.
Already hitting the circuit
The renewed focus of a proven fundraising pro like Franken already appears to be paying off for the Democrats, as the senator has logged some serious miles — and dollars — so far. In October, he and David Letterman co-hosted a New York City fundraiser for Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth, who is running to unseat vulnerable incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk. Franken heads to Reno and Las Vegas this weekend to fundraise for Catherine Cortez Masto, who is angling to succeed outgoing Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid.
In the first six months of 2015, Midwest Values PAC raised $446,973, putting Franken on pace to surpass his 2012 effort, when he raised $1.6 million for Democrats. He’s parceled out $91,000 in campaign contributions, most of which went to vulnerable Senate Democrats, like Colorado’s Michael Bennett, and challengers with real potential to win seats, like Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, Ohio’s Ted Strickland, and Duckworth.
While Democrats have a much more favorable electoral map in 2016 than they did last year, taking the Senate will require nearly all key races to go their way. Republicans must defend 24 seats to the Democrats’ 10, several in blue states or states that could go either way, like Florida and New Hampshire. It’ll be a tall order — Democrats need a net gain of five seats to secure the chamber — but Franken is optimistic. “They have vulnerabilities enough that we should be able to take it back,” he said.
Same old Franken
To plugged-in Minnesotans, it’s still the same Franken, though a bit more unburdened, according to Jim Meffert, a Democrat who ran for Congress in the 3rd District in 2010. “He’s been all over fundraising for people. He does like that lower profile with fundraising, he doesn’t like sound-bite stuff. He may be asked more and he may say yes more,” Meffert said.
According to Jeff Blodgett, founder of Wellstone Action and a Franken ally, Franken is valuable because of “his ability to draw in people at events and excite Democratic base voters,” adding that he’s only surpassed by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren in that category. “Now that he is in his second term, it looks like what is new is that he is thinking about his national role as a senator who can lead, shape politics, and shape policy,” Blodgett said.
Perhaps Franken is thinking about that, but he wouldn’t say so explicitly. He told MinnPost that he isn’t planning to do too many more national interviews than he did before. The Politico interview is the exception that proves the rule, he said, adding it was “just to get them off my back, finally.” After an aide interjected with a correction, he later clarified: “they asked at the right time.”
According to Blodgett, “Al has done a fantastic job of staying focused like a laser on Minnesota, and I can’t imagine that will change too much… I also think he can do both things: fight hard on Minnesota issues and be a national figure. The difference now is there is little risk from criticism that he is spending time outside of Minnesota to help other candidates.”
In the end, Americans in the other 49 states will probably get to see more of Franken, but they’ll see the wonky senator Minnesotans have come to know over the last seven years. Appearing on CNN Tuesday afternoon, Franken delved into details on data policy. The host goaded him to do an impression of Donald Trump, but he turned it down.