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Senate recount looms as Norm Coleman and Al Franken lock up in a classic battle of weakness

Sen. Norm Coleman and his wife, Laurie, met with supporters Tuesday night while awaiting vote returns, which showed the incumbent ahead by a razor-thin margin.
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Sen. Norm Coleman and his wife, Laurie, met with supporters Tuesday night while awaiting vote returns, which showed the incumbent ahead by a razor-thin margin.

He should have been a sitting duck. All over the country, incumbent Republican senators were being knocked off. But as midnight turned to early morning in Minnesota, Norm Coleman was holding on for dear life.

Why?

Certainly, not because he's so loved. Coleman was narrowly ahead, receiving only about 42 percent of the vote, which is what Democratic challenger Al Franken was receiving.

No matter who wins — and the race results surely will be recounted before a victor is declared — the outcome will be more about weakness than strength. 

The simple fact is Barack Obama swept to a victory in Minnesota. But even his coat-tails weren't long enough for Franken, who never was embraced by the Minnesota rank and file.  In a matter of just a few moments late Tuesday night, the reason he failed to connect became clear.

Take a look at what happened at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in downtown St. Paul, which was jammed with DFLers celebrating Obama's triumph.

All the noise and all the celebration ceased as the DFLers watched on large TV screens Obama's inspiring and gracious victory speech. There were smiles, tears, cheers and hugs throughout the room during and after Obama's remarks.

Contrast in Obama and Franken speeches says it all
Then, the TV sound was silenced and Franken moved into the hotel ballroom to deliver a speech about the oh-so-close race he was having with Coleman.

Franken started on a light note.

"You thought this was going to be easy?'' he asked the crowd.

There was some laughter and cheers. But quickly, he was in fighting mode. 

"Minnesotans have said we've had enough of the way this country has been run for the last eight years,'' he said.

The contrast between Obama's call for a united country and Franken looking for Republican butts to kick couldn't have been more stark.

Democratic challenger Al Franken awaited the returns with DFL supporters.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen
Democratic challenger Al Franken awaited the returns with DFL supporters.

That tough stuff might work for junior high football players and political true believers.

But it's not so effective with most, who want to see some sunshine and hope from their leaders. (Think happy warriors such as Hubert Humphrey and Paul Wellstone.)

Throughout most of his campaign, Franken has come across as a miserably unhappy warrior. And Coleman, well, most Minnesotans have no clue as to who he is.  

So, what Minnesotans got in this Senate race were two people we don't like so much.  Neither one could win, but one has to lose.

Some argue that it was the millions of dollars of negative ads that Coleman and Franken slimed each other with that made each seem so unappealing. That allowed the Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley to gain about 15 percent of the vote.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, for example, believes the attack ads "slandering Al's character'' had a huge impact on Franken's inability to gain traction. 

Perhaps that's true. But it seems too simple.

You could go through Twin Cities neighborhoods that were filled with Obama signs and seldom come across a sign for Franken.

"That's comparing apples and oranges,'' said Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak.  "Obama is the leader of a cause.''

He didn't ever explain what Franken was.

Despite Obama's strength, Franken not very popular
But DFL door-knockers could tell you what he wasn't: He wasn't very popular.

Over and over, door-knockers tell stories of meeting people excited about Obama but not wanting to support Franken.

Which tells you all you need to know about Coleman. The incumbent couldn't beat an unpopular challenger.

At the Republican headquarters Tuesday night, a party guy, who asked that his name not be used, was trying to explain the lack of love people feel for Coleman.

"Don't you think it has something to do with the fact that he has Wellstone's seat?'' the man said.

More likely, it has to do with the fact that Coleman isn't trusted much more by Republicans than he is by Democrats.  He's not the reach-across-the-aisle-get-things-done guy he constantly talks about.  He's a caricature of a tap-dancing pol.

If Coleman goes back to the Senate, he won't go back as the rising star he seemed to be six years ago, when he was the handpicked candidate of Vice President Dick Cheney. Serious ethics charges could loom. His party, out of the White House, now has real minority status in the Senate. And he's a 42 percenter.

The end result of this Senate race?

Somebody's gotta lose. And when that happens, there won't be many tears.

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)

Thanks Doug.

I have three words to say:

Jack. Nelson. Pallmeyer.

nice column, doug.

i think franken was hurt by something that helped obama: both had perceptions to battle and both tried mightily to stay on point and not pull a hatch by, say, calling someone a republican whore (hatch).

so, obama, by battling ugly, racial perceptions (couldn't be the "angry black man" in debates or the "uppity" guy when talking to his base) was helped by his own ability to consistently convey a positive, even, thoughtful and disciplined persona that resonated with so-called swing voters.

franken, on the other hand, was battling the persona of the funny guy AND the angry guy - but instead of this working to his advantage, his attempting to appear serious and level-headed didn't leave voters much else to grab onto or get excited about.

but what else was franken to do? it's not like being the funny or righteously angry guy would have won him more votes. this one just didn't set up well for him, obama's coat tails and all.

if anything, it's the dfl apparatus that failed in the senate election - with that many new voters and most of them going for the democrat at the top of the ticket, it should have meant a coordinated, overkill effort to link the candidates for voters. my minneapolis neighborhood (near the u of mn, east bank) and outside my polling place didn't have one, sample ballot going around - and our door wasn't knocked once by anyone from the dfl before or during election day.

turning out likely sympathetic voters in your state's largest city - and helping them to understand the importance of voting a straight, party ticket - is essential to winning state-wide races. ask pennsylvania and illinois - democrats win those states by paying cash to people on the ground in philly and chicago to get every breathing person to vote as often as possible.

ps. jack nelson palmeyer? i truly think he would have come in third to barkley.

Al Franken captured our hearts back when he was working so hard to get good people elected years ago. We got to know him as a man who cared deeply about people ... especially people who did not have an easy road in life.

Our life as a family centers on the gay community. We knew Al Franken cared about the gay community long before the election because he was working for equality with the gay community before he decided to run. When you have a child who is gay, the issue of equality looms large. When your child can get kicked out of school, fired from a job, isn't able to serve their country, and there are people fighting to write discrimination into the constitution simply because he is gay.... then you cry when a candidate like Al Franken doesn't win in a state that shouldn't be re-electing a guy like Norm Coleman.

This family is crying because we knew Al Franken would fight for our son's equality and we know exactly what Coleman wants for Jake. We had such hope in our hearts.

I was a JNP supporter who dutifully voted for Franken. The DFL decries the excessive loyalty that Republicans pay to their own, but I wonder how guilty they are of the same practice. Yes, Franken raised boatloads of money for DFL candidates. Is that the reason he was endorsed-- or because he truly was the best candidate?

This race isn't over. But along the way I hope the DFL has a "Dr. Phil" moment of its own.

And I was a Ciresi voter who voted for Franken yesterday. I would like to especially thank the busybody netroots folks who helped DFLers pick their candidate. I strongly suspect there will be some online mea culpas, and that we will NEVER again see the leftwing blogosphere jump into an open race like they did in Minnesota.

I am a Barkley voter who wanted Jack Uldrich to win the IP nomination. I think the Franken problem is most apparent when this race is compared to Klobuchar-Kennedy-Fitzgerald. The DFL's mistake was in not finding a Klobuchar for this election. My outsider's view is that the DFL party leadership greased the skids for Franken before they woke up to the reality that Republicans were on the run. With some better strategic planning, they could have won another blowout. Instead, well, Doug covered that...

It ain't over till it's over. The current margin is 462 in Coleman's favor. This is going to be a long haul. If I weren't so tired I'd be relishing such a nugget of election drama. Maybe tomorrow.

Great column, Doug. I think you hit the nail right on the head.

I did vote for Franken, not with tremendous enthusiasm, but with a sense that he was an intelligent man who would grow in the job.

When I was a senior at St. Olaf in 1980, Franken came to the campus to campaign for John Anderson's third-party presidential bid.

He jumped up on a table in the cafeteria and made a very good impromptu speech. So I knew that Franken was no Johnny-come-lately to political activism.

That tabletop speech 28 years ago, as much as anything, convinced me to cast my vote for him.

I couldn't bear to go to a single party last night. As I walked through the neighborhood around 10, flashes started appearing in the sky, firecrackers were going off, and people were yelling in the streets. AP had called the presidential race for Obama, and people were celebrating.

But as I woke up this morning and realized once again that the DFL had completely wasted the Senate contest on Al Franken, I couldn't help wishing once again that the convention had chosen Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer instead.

16 million dollars, and for what? If Jack had had a tenth of this money, we would have had a victory. If Jack had had a tenth of that money, we would have had television ads about issues instead of mud. If Jack had had a tenth of that money, we would have had a senator who only comes along every generation or so, someone worthy of Paul Wellstone's seat. Instead, we will probably have another 6 years of Norm Coleman, whose most redeeming characteristic is his complete corruption. With his finger to a new wind, he may actually improve under President Obama.

Why, oh why, do so many Democrats in Minnesota keep trying so obsessively to pick winners, no matter how bad they are. Those "winners" are losing us election after election. And we are all suffering because of it.

I can't believe how spot on your analysis of the voters' feelings. I felt exactly the same way. An article by Slate about Franken's satire made me feel slightly better about voting for him. I hope that he is successful in his bid and worked hard to elect him, but primarily because of my greater distaste for the opportunism of Coleman.

Our state is now represented by a governor who failed to receive a majority of votes, a senator who will have failed to receive a majority, and, in my district, a congressman who will have failed to receive a majority, and a state representative who will have failed to receive a majority. In fact, in that last instance, over 60% of us didn't want the victor in office. Isn't it time the Legislature seriously consider instant runoff voting?