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.
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.
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.