Coleman-Franken Senate race: Tone-deaf? Campaigns fiddle with offbeat ads while voters burn about serious issues

MinnPost photos by Terry Gydesen (Franken) and Bill Kelley (Barkley, Coleman)

Given the turmoil of Wall Street, political ads featuring talking fish and blue-collar bowlers may seem out of touch with the financial concerns of Minnesota voters.

But despite the economic uncertainty that’s having an impact on everyday Minnesotans and is showing up as voters’ top concern, it appears unlikely the tone of Minnesota’s Senate race suddenly will reflect the seriousness of the times.

The campaign of Democratic challenger Al Franken will continue to use such devices as a talking fish to show who Republican incumbent Norm Coleman hangs out with. And Coleman’s campaign likely will continue to have commercials with guy-next-door bowlers talking about how Coleman “gets things done” — and ads that show what a nasty-tempered fellow Franken can be.

This Coleman-Franken finger-pointing may leave a crack open for Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley to continue to gain support in the state.

Why isn’t Senate campaign reflecting voter priorities?
So why won’t the Franken-Coleman tone change to reflect voters’ concerns?

University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs agrees that in the last few days the mood of voters likely has become very serious. He compares the Wall Street “meltdown” to the economic version of “a terrorist attack.”

“The general area of the economy is a big advantage for Democrats,” Jacobs said.

Still, he doesn’t expect either Coleman or Franken to suddenly start trying to come up with serious, economic policy ads.

“The key thing to remember is that only about 15 percent of the voters are up for grabs,” Jacobs said. “The rest of us have already made up our minds. The 15 percent left tend to be the least well-informed.”

He predicts that because the economy is traditionally an area that favors Democrats, Coleman will continue to try to direct the campaign toward Franken’s perceived weaknesses.

“The (Angry Al) ads are an effort to prepare a landscape that Franken is not up to the job,” said Jacobs. “The Coleman campaign can’t raise the question, ‘Are you better off now than you were six years ago?’ …The tax stuff — his history as a satirist — has really hurt Franken. So Coleman will be trying to make the point that Franken does not represent Main Street Minnesota values.”

Franken, according to Jacobs, will have to respond to Coleman, “but his best shot is to keep the focus on how bad things are.”

Not surprisingly, the campaigns defend their strategies.

From the outset, said spokeswoman Colleen Murray, the Franken campaign “has been focused on the fact that the economy is not working for the middle class.”  Franken, she said, has proposed such things as tuition tax credits and protection of Social Security throughout the campaign?

So what does a talking fish have to do with enlightening voters?

Coleman’s “record” of supporting such big industries as oil and pharmaceutical companies show he’s “out of touch” with the middle class, she said.

When asked about the tone of the race, the Coleman campaign ignored the question. Instead, it responded with a statement from spokesman Mark Drake that sounded like a mish-mash of most of the Coleman commercials:

“Americans are looking for leadership that can work across party lines to get things done,” Drake said in the statement. “Norm’s formula for reawakening economic vitality in St. Paul was to bring people together to get things done, to restore hope and confidence and to ultimately create a climate of investment and engagement. That’s how you deal with tough economic times. You don’t throw the partisan gas on the fire that Al Franken carries around in his partisan gas can to fuel flames of division, anger and distrust. Norm’s history of working with people he may not always agree with, but always respects, and getting things done, is exactly the key difference between him and Al Franken.”

Hey, all you can do is ask the question.

Likewise, the Coleman website is filled with items attacking the veracity of Franken’s attacks. The big news from the Coleman campaign on Tuesday was the announcement that it has formed a “Truth Squad” to set the record straight on Franken’s attacks.

“It’s not just the things that Al Franken makes up that we are going to challenge him and his allies on,” said Doug Kelley, a Truth Squadder. “We’re also going to hold him accountable for his publicly proven ethics and legal problems.”

Wall Street? Not mentioned.

Barkley could benefit from Franken-Coleman sparring
The potential beneficiary of all this could turn out to be Barkley, predicted Jacobs. Clearly, he’s in a position to hold himself above the fray.

Diane Goldman, Barkley’s campaign manager, called the Franken-Coleman exchanges “exceedingly silly in serious times. They’re like little boys in a school-yard fight.”

The problem for Barkley, of course, is that he doesn’t yet have the money to buy radio and television ads, though Goldman said that weekend polls inspired a surge of financial support. (KSTP and Star Tribune weekend polls show Barkley receiving voter support of 14 percent and 13 percent, respectively.)

While Barkley waits for enough money to make advertising buys, he’s releasing statements belittling the campaigns of Franken and Coleman.

“Over the last few months, we’ve seen dueling bowling alley ads, talking fish, name-calling and a whole array of absolutely mindless tactics,” he said Tuesday. “Most Minnesotans wouldn’t want to see their children behave this way, let alone their Senate candidates.”

So on it goes. In an exceedingly close race, neither Coleman nor Franken dares let go of the other guy’s throat. Barkley shakes his head in contempt.

Jacobs says there are a couple of things to watch in the final weeks of this campaign:

1. Will Barkley take more votes from Coleman or Franken? At this point, he says, Coleman may be the more vulnerable.

2. Will the Senate debates be what finally decide the outcome?

Aside: Campaign managers met Monday night to discuss the debates. The meeting was described as “productive” by the Barkley and Coleman campaigns. An announcement of when — and how many — debates there will be is expected yet this week.

But, if only 15 percent of the least informed, least interested voters, are in play, why will the debates matter?  After all, it would make sense that these voters are the least likely to pay attention to debates.

“Media coverage of these events does filter out,” said Jacobs.

The environment has shifted “dramatically” in the last few weeks, Jacobs said. Wall Street and Main Street Minnesota have become intermingled.

Only the tones of the campaigns remain the same.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Tony Minnichsoffer on 09/18/2008 - 12:03 pm.

    Both Senator Coleman and Candidate Franken should be ashamed. They waste their backers’ money and voters’s time on inane ads that only disgust intelligent voters. Are they trying to tell us that they are each slimeballs in their own realm? Their ads tell us that’s all they have.
    This bodes a hideous future for Minnesota and America. Not all that long ago our Senators of either party served Minnesota and America well, whether or not one agreed with their politics. Campaign rhetoric used to deal with issues, not personal mudslinging. On the home farm there was a truism “Where there’s mud there’s stink!
    These two and the marketing handlers that run them should study Minnesota’s recent history, which included several U.S. Senators of whom we can be proud. Names like Humphrey, McCarthy, Mondale, Anderson, Durenburger, Boschwitz, and Wellstone come to mind.
    God help us.
    Tony Minnichsoffer
    Lindstrom, Minnesota

  2. Submitted by Lickness on 09/18/2008 - 11:05 am.

    If I have to hear one more talking fish or bleeped out swear word I am going to throw a rock through my television. The reason Dean Barkley is doing so well in his late entrance to this race is that he isn’t stooping so low. Our economy is in the tank or should I say river. I want to hear how these candidates are going to fix it. I don’t care where Norm Coleman went fishing. I don’t care what other states Al Franken didn’t pay his taxes. I want to hear where they stand on the issues. The war, the economy, health care, education and the environment. If they are talking about those issues the message is getting lost in the nastyness. Time is running out. Get back to work and get busy.

  3. Submitted by stephen winnick on 09/18/2008 - 11:10 am.

    The “tax stuff” really hurts Al. The Dems knew what they were getting with the potential for satire backfire; but weren’t they(we, actually) were blindsided on his misunderstanding or forgetting about state income tax laws? This could have been a real message behind Lord Faris’ strong primary showing and indeed could fuel the Barkley support. So, what’s Al to do? First, fess up to the screw up and don’t rely on the blame the accountant – we don’t believe that one. Next, show us that you are a real Minnesotan, Al. Join us, become one of us by buying a house here-like in St. Louis Park. Show us now that you want to bleed with us and that you are not a carpetbagger. Lastly,find and embrace one or more liberal Republicans or independents to speak out for you. If McCain can do it nationally, can’t you do so locally and thereby show that can walk the walk and work across party lines? Its getting late, break out, Doug G. reports it right, in these awful times, the old attack dog ads ain’t being listened to. Steve Winnick

  4. Submitted by Lydia Olchoff on 09/18/2008 - 03:28 pm.

    I wholeheartedly agree with Tony Minnichsoffer. Both Norm Coleman and Al Franken turn my stomach.

    It is with great sadness that I think of the fact that we could have had a great statesman like JACK NELSON-PALLMEYER in this race. Sadly, the DFL endorsing convention (spearheaded by our — I’ve now realized — bought-and-paid for state legislators) chose Al Franken over Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. In so doing, they showed incredibly poor judgment.

    As Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer says, “this is the MOST important decade”. Wake up Minnesotans. If you don’t, then God help us all!

    Lydia Olchoff

  5. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/18/2008 - 11:34 am.

    Franken has said several times that his accountant did pay all the taxes that were due, but paid them to the state in which Franken lived instead of to the states in which he earned the money. He has corrected this, BUT the US Chamber of Commerce continues to run the ad featuring the “dear” little girl who says Franken doesn’t pay his taxes.

    The Chamber also runs the ad about Coleman “helping” seniors by voting for the Medicare drug benefit in 2003 and stressing that Franken would have voted against it. As would I had I been a member of Congress … and I’m a senior.

    That bill privatized this part of Medicare in hopes of privatizing it all at some point. Tom Delay and friends held a 15-minute vote open for HOURS to bully members of the House to vote for it. Minnesota seniors now must choose from about 150 plans, first checking their formularies to be sure each of the drugs they take is listed, and then comparing rates and prices. Seniors cannot change plans during the year; the companies can change their formularies and prices as often as every seven days. Medicare is forbidden by law from negotiating prices (the VA gets 45-46% off).

    Economist Dean Baker determined in 2005 that this plan costs the government and seniors (co-pays, deductibles, premiums, doughnut-hole purchases) about $80 billion per year more than would a simple addition to Medicare.

    The Chamber of Commerce is obviously serving the wishes of the drug and insurance industries with this ad.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 09/18/2008 - 11:16 am.

    As someone with no legislative, or leadership experience, Franken has to earn the right to be taken seriously on issues of importance. The only thing we have to measure Al by is how he has conducted himself and his own business over the past 20 years or so.

    Forgetting his penchant for incoherent raving and lowbrow humor, let us focus our attentions upon have Al the businessman:

    Al Franken, Inc. Created for the sole purpose of lowering the tax bill of Al Franken; taxes are the sole product. President and CEO: Al Franken.

    -Forfeited by the State of California for failure to abide by the tax code and laws of incorporation.

    -Claimed not to have been doing business in California for more than eight years. When presented with evidence to the contrary, Al declares himself confused.

    -Found liable for back taxes and penalties in 17 other states.

    -Fined $25,000 by the state of New York for failure to pay required workers compensation premiums.

    Do you think Al the businessman has earned the right to have his opinion on financial matters taken seriously?

    Radio personality. Hired by Air America radio as the stations “marquee player”. Compensation unknown, but estimated to be several millions.

    – The Al Franken show debuted March 31, 2004.

    – Due to insufficient revenue, in July of 2005, Evan Cohen constructs an illegal scheme to collect an $875,000 “loan” from the Gloria Wise Children’s charity.

    – In August of 2006, the NY Sun newspaper publishes a story that details the scam; Al Franken publicly states that he knew nothing about it. When legal documents bearing his signature are produced, Al claims that he signed them without having read a word.

    – October 13, 2006; Air America Radio files Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

    – February 14, 2007; the last Al Franken show airs.

    If we take Al at his word, is it reasonable to trust the interests of millions of Minnesotans to a man who would sign a stack of legal documents, concerning the dispensation of huge monetary sums, without having taken a moment to look through them?

    If we use common sense, is it reasonable to trust the interests of millions of Minnesotans to a man who willingly and knowingly pocketed the proceeds of a scheme that bilked a children’s charity?

    The facts show that Al has failed at everything he has undertaken. When presented with evidence of that failure, Al first relies on prevarications, then blames others.

    Given the facts, “offbeat ads” could be considered a kindness to Al.

  7. Submitted by Nesseth Nesseth on 09/18/2008 - 01:08 pm.

    Mr. Frankin – I say you need to take go back to New York and run against Mrs. Clinton in two years in a few years; Minnesota does not need, want, or desire you to represent you in the Senate. Please, go home!

  8. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 09/18/2008 - 11:15 pm.

    All I’m seeing in these comments is one attack on Franken after another, some from obvious partisans, some claiming to be neutral. The fact is Franken has run a bunch of issue ads, while Coleman did nothing but make his personal attacks on Franken. has he run even one ad on an issue? Just one? The sad fact is that by the time you’re appealing to people who can be moved by ads, attacks are believed if not responded to, and that means going after your opponent as well as defending yourself. If you don’t like negative ads, stopped being influenced by them! they run them because they work.

    Anytime Coleman wants the campaign to be about issues, it can be. Let him run on his ideas, not just on how much he dislikes Franken and bringing hockey to St. Paul. People may not like all of Franken’s ideas, but at least he has some.

  9. Submitted by Dan Hoxworth on 09/19/2008 - 11:27 am.

    Former Senator Dean Barkley is a legitimate contender due to his short, but highly effective Senate service, his polling and his ideas. He is the only person in this race who has the opportunity to truly work in a bipartisan race.

    I am very disappointed that MinnPost would continue to refer to the race as the “Franken-Coleman race” when it is clear (with Barkley polling nearly 15 percent) that this is the Barkley-Coleman-Franken Senate race.

    If the debates go on without Senator Barkely they should be boycotted by the media. When was the last time a candidate of a major party and polling 15% was excluded from a debate? Excluding Barkley would be a travesty to the people of Minnesota.

    We need a new way of doing an election and doing business in Washington and Dean Barkley is offering Minnesotans an opportunity to say so!

  10. Submitted by Tim Nelson on 09/20/2008 - 07:49 pm.

    A do nothing Congress is by definition a shortage of centrists. In the 1970’s, a quarter of Congress were aisle-crossing centrists, there is no shortcut to a “do something” congress other than electing more centrists at all levels of government.

    The famous hand gesture of Obama, taking us forward (hands outstretched then brought to the center) is just politics as usual, unless he can demonstrate concrete policies that centrists, like myself, can recognize as centrist in nature.

    All politicians, in September through November, covet aisle-crossing. The independent, swing voters will decide this election, and every election until the supply of centrists is replenished.

    So, we know what the partisan wish lists look like, but suppose, just suppose someday we are hamstrung by the cost of financial bailouts, haven’t saved for retirement, and are on course for an economic meltdown like the USSR, what then?

    Planting ourselves squarely in the aisle, where do we spend our time and money?

    Here is my list:

    1) reduce partisanship.
    2) reduce debt or excessive tribute exacted from other nations
    3) install new technology to streamline the public sector
    4) pass wage and price controls in health care
    5) cut back on military overreach
    6) promote capitalism and the government regulation of capitalism
    7) bury the bad rap on the progressive income tax
    8) promote free trade

    Considering the percentage of the public that are partisan voters, any winner of a partisan contest, as this is shaping up to be, will have a low opinion rating right from the start.

  11. Submitted by Kevin D'Arcy on 09/21/2008 - 11:59 am.

    First Minnesota elects a phony wrestler to be its governor now it wants to put a comedian in as a senator. Jesse’s motto was “Win if you can, lose if you must, but always cheat!” What a joke. Doesn’t Minnesota have someone better qualified for elected office? Isn’t anyone in Minnesota serious about electing good people to public office? I guess Al Franken is best known for the line “Vote for me, Al Franken. You’ll be glad you did!” It was supposed to be a joke but the good people of Minnesota took it literally.

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