Last August I wrote that Al Franken could still win. Little did anyone know back then that it would take nearly a year to determine who would become our next U.S. senator. And that while the indicators I laid out were critical, it was a gutsy call by his campaign manager that would ultimately win Franken the race.
In the end, the recount made Franken, former Sen. Norm Coleman and Minnesota better — or at least we hope so.
The lessons we should take from this race are that political operatives can make the difference in an election and that core Minnesota values of humility and populism are recipes for success.
Campaign operatives were key
As his campaign struggled with major issues inside the DFL power structure, troublesome writings in Playboy and tax issues, Franken found himself behind by 15 points. But now that the contest is over, it’s clear that this is a case of Franken winning the race on strategy and execution more than it’s a case of Coleman losing the race on mistakes he made.
Franken was competitive for various reasons, including the political environment, fundraising success and name ID. That said, he won because of the thinking and strategy of senior staff toward the end of the campaign. That team included Stephanie Schriock, Eric Schultz and Dan Cramer. Without that talent, it is unlikely Franken would have won.
Cramer joined the campaign late as its field director and his calm presence and strategic thinking meant that Franken won the ground game. The field operation was responsible for absentee ballots, get-out-the vote and, most importantly, training the field team on what to do in the event of a recount.
Schultz brought maturity and discipline to Franken’s media operation. Instead of merely reacting to attacks by Coleman and others, Schultz flipped the tone and strategy of the operation to a mature and confident media team that promoted a newly disciplined candidate.
But Schriock deserves the ultimate credit. Her early recognition that the race was likely to be extremely close and could include a recount (as documented by my colleague Doug Grow) was simply genius. Her call to build a recount team, including attorney Marc Elias, was ultimately the difference. It was the piece of the campaign that Coleman insiders concede they were unprepared for and legally out-maneuvered on.
Franken’s campaign triumvirate had a quiet confidence in each other and displayed a nimbleness that most campaigns don’t have and that Franken desperately needed.
As an incumbent, Coleman faced the challenge of dealing with numerous close advisers who didn’t always agree on campaign strategy. Coleman himself was noticeably annoyed by the fact that Franken was a legitimate candidate and he had trouble grasping how Minnesotans could vote for Franken. It’s not the first time Coleman underestimated his opponent and failed to rise to a higher level of politics.
In the end, this entire gut-wrenching and hand-wringing experience of a recount was a good thing and a reminder of the political values of Minnesota.
Humility and authenticity
Both Franken and Coleman needed more humility and authenticity. Had either of them won outright on election night, it is unlikely they would be the same men that they are after the recount. For Franken, a man who wrote books entitled “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot,” humility and proper tone were critical lessons that evolved throughout the campaign. For Coleman, this campaign was likely a reminder that being himself is the best strategy. His confidence or arrogance after winning in 2002 and his close alignment with former President George W. Bush weren’t the qualities of the Norm Coleman we saw when he was as mayor of St. Paul or during the immediate aftermath of the Wellstone plane crash.
Since 1990 we have had a highly volatile electorate in Minnesota. But considering the trend is now 18 years running, maybe we can’t call it volatile any more. It’s our inherent populism combined with the changing nature of high-dollar, intensely fought campaigns that makes anything possible on Election Day. The sheer closeness of this election should be a lesson for the 2010 governor’s race — and it likely will live with Coleman and Franken every day of their political futures.
Improve our system
We have a great election system in Minnesota. The issues and problems revealed by the recount deserve reform and new legislation. Most notably, the variables in county-by-county review of ballots should be fixed in time for the 2010 election. If we correct the problems, we can probably avoid ideas like run-off elections or statewide instant run off voting.
Franken can take lessons from Sen. Amy Klobuchar on how to unite the state and work for a better Minnesota despite partisan preference. For Coleman, he knows Minnesota well. It was his political-maverick streak that originally made him a rising star and that ultimately will be the core of any comeback.
Exhausted by the election and recount, we must show ourselves to be smarter after this trial — just as, I hope, Franken and Coleman will do.