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Franken wins big, but maybe not big enough in Senate primary

By Doug Grow | Tuesday, Sept.

So confident was Al Franken of victory in Tuesday’s primary race that four hours before the polls closed Tuesday his campaign was announcing his “general election campaign kickoff.”

Franken, the DFL’s endorsed U.S. Senate candidate, did win. And by most accounting methods, you probably could say he won easily over previously unknown Priscilla Lord Faris. But did he win easily enough?

Probably not.

There were other notable winners and losers on this primary day that most Minnesotans ignored. (For the latest results, check the Minnesota secretary of state’s Election Center here.)

In the 1st Congressional District, Brian Davis, a political newcomer who had the Republican Party’s endorsement in his pocket, took out state Sen. Dick Day, who seemed to have the advantage of a folksy personality and a familiar name.

And two Republican state legislators who were part of the “Override Six” had decidedly different endings to the stories of their votes of conscience.

In southern suburban District 41B, incumbent Rep. Neil Peterson was beaten by 13 percentage points by Jan Schneider, who won party endorsement after Peterson joined DFLers in voting to override Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s veto of a transportation bill that included a gasoline tax increase.

“It was like the Cosa Nostra,” said Peterson last night. “The state party put a mark on me and said, ‘He’s got to go.’ ”

On the other side of the ‘burbs, however, Jim Abeler, another of the O-Sixers, was able to easily defeated Don Huizenga, a far-right candidate.  In Abeler’s District, 48B, Republicans endorsed no one. 

Senate primary races dominate night
But the big races of the night were the primaries in the U.S. Senate contest.

Dean Barkley, who served two months as a U.S. senator completing the late Paul Wellstone’s term, easily won the Independence Party’s primary, picking up 60 percent of the vote in a seven-way race. Barkley  defeated the IP’s endorsed candidate, Stephen Williams, a gentle sweet-corn farmer from near Austin,  who got 6 percent of the IP vote. Barkley also defeated his friend, Jack Uldrich, who hoped a low-cost, high-tech campaign based on “viral” computer ads would overcome Barkley’s name recognition.

“If we lose, it’s because we’re ahead of the curve,” Uldrich said on Election Day.

The creative Uldrich is ahead of the curve by some distance, judging from the 13 percent of the vote he received.

And, of course, incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman was a winner, picking up more than 90 percent of the Republican vote.

Time out, for a moment.

If  there are going to be questions raised about the size of Franken’s win, there should be at least a few snickers over the fact that Jack Shepard managed to win roughly 8 percent of the Republican vote.

Shepard, who has had to deal with some dicey legal problems in the past, has lived for most of the last two decades in Italy. While Coleman was stumping through Minnesota; Shepard was stumping through Rome.

But the punditry question of the night will focus on Franken.

Carleton College political science professor Steve Schier said Tuesday morning that Franken “needs a show of strength.”

What’s that mean?

Lord Faris’ showing problematic for Franken
“If she gets 25 percent of the vote or more, I think there’s significant meaning in that,” said Schier.

Well, she did.  As the night wore on, Lord Faris, unknown, underfinanced and ignored by Franken and the media, was running in the 30 percent range.

What might this woman, who jumped into the race seven weeks ago, have done if anyone had taken her seriously?

The refrain she heard over and over again from various groups was “We like you, but we’re supporting Al because we think he can win.”

That’s call a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We in the media were just as bad as some of the women’s groups Lord Faris went to for support.  We didn’t give her a chance, so we shut her out.

And example of how tough it was: At the State Fair, Lord Faris’ communications director, Jim Dunlop, approached the radio stations doing programming at the Fair.

No takers.

“They treated me as if it was going to be impossible, so why take me seriously,” she said.

Media snubs weren’t the only problem. Her entrance into the race infuriated some DFLers, who called her “horrible names.”

But the biggest snub of all came from Franken. He refused to debate her.

“That’s against all Minnesota tradition,” said Lord Faris.

 In fact, Franken acted as if Lord Faris didn’t exist, repeatedly saying he was keeping the focus of the race on Coleman.

Certainly, Franken didn’t do any muscle flexing or toss a big victory bash on primary night. He only released a statement:

“. . . .I want to thank all the DFLers who participated in this primary election and congratulate Norm Coleman and Dean Barkley on their victories. And, after a good night’s sleep, I look forward to waging a spirited campaign for change over the next eight weeks.”

For her part, Lord Faris was of no mind to talk about “moral victories.”

“I guess, given just seven weeks and very little money, we accomplished quite a bit,” she said. “I think my campaign shows that Minnesotans want to be represented by a Minnesota who treats people right and who has just a little experience — just a little.”

When she got into the race, Lord Faris said she personally liked Franken. She’s even given him some money.

But after seeing stories about some of his crude “satire,” she decided to run.  She’s more convinced than ever that Franken is a flawed candidate. She doesn’t sound as if she likes him so much anymore, though she said she’d never support Coleman.

Independence Party, perhaps?

“You never know,” she said.

Not surprisingly, endorsements were the key to primary night. 

Day-Davis 1st Congressional District showdown lopsided
In the 1st Congressional District, the Davis-Day race was supposed to be tight.

It wasn’t.

Day noted that in the last days of the campaign, Davis sent out a half-dozen mailings; the GOP sent out another half-dozen mailing on Davis’ behalf.

“I sent out one mailing,” he said.

Still, he found a bright side.

“No more parades,” Day said, laughing.

Davis isn’t exactly in for a walk in the political park. He’ll now meet DFL incumbent Tim Walz in November.

“He’s sitting there waiting with $1 million in his campaign fund,” said Schier.

Plus, Walz is the unusual sort of DFLer who doesn’t have only his party’s endorsement, he’s got the endorsement of the NRA.

Like most of us, Schier is relieved that the primary means that the end of the long, long campaign is near.

“I can’t wait,” said Schier, a political junkie who has overdosed.

He noted that since the end of last week’s Republican National Convention and before the November elections, Canada has called for — and will have held—its elections.

“They do it all in 40 days,” said Schier. “It makes you envious of the Canadians, doesn’t it?”

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