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He’s good enough, smart enough and, doggone it, people like him: Why Al Franken may be a serious candidate for vice president

Franken would be an unusual choice. But this is an unusual election.

If a running-mate is meant to be an attack dog, then Sen. Al Franken could prove a good selection.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

A Minnesota Democratic senator is in the news for being a potential selection for vice president — a sharp political mind with a reputation for sober legislating, coming off the heels of a major re-election victory.

And it’s not Amy Klobuchar — it’s Al Franken.

Seriously.

As Hillary Clinton has emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Franken’s name has popped up alongside usual VP shortlist suspects — cabinet officials like Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, and senators like Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts (and Klobuchar too, of course).

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Minnesota’s junior senator may not be in the top tier of potential selections for now. But if this election cycle has proved anything, it’s that almost nothing is out of the question. Is Vice President Franken?

Franken: An unusual choice for an unusual election

The genesis of Franken veep speculation was driven by two factors: Donald Trump becoming the presumptive Republican nominee, and the unexpected success of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

The challenge presented by Trump, and the progressive insurgency ignited by Sanders, has encouraged unconventional thinking: that a different kind of running-mate might be necessary to both counter Trump and appeal to the Democratic Party’s left flank.

But that doesn’t make Franken a shoo-in. The top choice for progressives is undoubtedly Warren, who is said to be interested in the job and has publicly criticized Trump numerous times.

But Warren’s popularity hasn’t stifled a discussion of others who might play a similar role. The first real argument for Franken as a liberal alternative to Warren came in late March, when writer Bill Scher posted a comprehensive case for the senator in Politico Magazine.

Speculation picked up from there, with the press regularly asking Franken if he was interested in the VP gig. Though he affirmed again and again his interest in his day job, that didn’t stop people from endorsing him.

In May, The Week magazine declared Franken the “perfect Trump-slayer;” in June, GOOD magazine called for Franken to be veep, and former Obama Chief of Staff Bill Daley said Franken in the VP role would “drive Trump crazy.”

The anti-Trump

So what would Franken bring to a Clinton ticket, if he did get the call?

If a running-mate is meant to be an attack dog, then Franken could prove a good selection. He did, after all, build his national profile in the 1990s and 2000s thanks to polemic tomes like “Rush Limbaugh Is A Big Fat Idiot” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.”

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Franken has largely avoided stoking controversy as a senator, but now that he is into his second term, he’s been a little more eager to knock political rivals: at MinnRoast this year, Franken called Texas Sen. Ted Cruz the “lovechild of Joe McCarthy and Dracula.”

That style might work in this unusual election cycle: Trump has proven to be somewhat resistant to traditional attacks, and Clinton struggled early to find her footing in messaging against the billionaire.

Democrats have come around to the idea that the best way to blunt Trump’s appeal is to attack him with humor and make him seem ridiculous. Who better to do that than a former comedian?

Joel Goldstein, a professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on vice presidential politics, described this as a key advantage for Franken. “One theory is that using humor is a way of dealing with Trump, and that among Senator Franken’s talents is he’s demonstrated an ability to use humor in a way that is very effective,” he said.

Beyond that, Franken is also very popular in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, largely due to the years he spent on Air America, a now-defunct liberal talk radio network, criticizing the George W. Bush administration. He may be able to help close an enthusiasm gap among Sanders backers who are hardly fired up at the prospect of a Clinton presidency.

According to Steven Schier, professor of political science at Carleton College, Franken would have “considerable appeal to the Sanders crowd, which might help to produce more campaign volunteers, money, enthusiasm, within the left-wing base of the Democratic Party.”

And then there’s the bottom line. Franken is a prolific fundraiser — a tangible plus he’d bring to the ticket. His leadership PAC has raked in $1.9 million this cycle, the most of any Democratic member of Congress.

Clinton’s campaign will have little trouble raising money — she has $42 million in the bank as of May 31, dwarfing the barely $1 million Trump has. But Franken’s progressive ties might help Clinton find donations in corners she might usually not.

Schier says that Franken’s “ability to raise money and excite a partisan base… does really elevate him,” adding that Warren is the only other potential candidate who can do the same.

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Perhaps the biggest advantage Franken has over Warren — and Booker or Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown — is that a Democrat sits in the governor’s mansion in Minnesota. Selecting a senator who represents a state with a Republican governor means that a Republican would almost certainly be an interim Senate appointee.

With Democrats looking at a near-zero margin of error in their effort to take back the Senate majority, that could be a major consideration for Clinton.

‘He’d be a polarizing choice’

There are plenty of risks to selecting Franken, though, that explain why he is probably not in the top five or six on the veep list.

For one, just as Franken might add a humorous edge to the Clinton ticket, he could open her up to criticism that she is not running a serious campaign.

Though politics-watchers in D.C. and Minnesota know well that Franken has tried to cultivate a reputation as a sober, details-oriented lawmaker, many voters might remember him first as Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live.

“Sometimes, somebody’s strength can turn into a perceived weakness,” Goldstein says. “The fact that he had this prior career as a humorist, a satirist, some people will still think of it that way rather than based on the service he’s provided in the Senate.”

Already, polling has sought to test Franken’s viability as a veep. In late June, a Monmouth University poll measured Franken’s effect on a Clinton ticket, placing him alongside Warren, Sanders, Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

Twenty-one percent of voters nationwide, per the poll, would be less likely to vote for Clinton if Franken were the VP choice, while 12 percent would be more likely.

Twenty-four percent of liberals were more likely to vote for Clinton if Franken were on the ticket, while 30 percent of conservatives were less likely. Sixty percent said it would have no impact on their decision. (It’s worth noting that the only politicians that would make the average voter more likely to vote Clinton, per the survey, were Warren and Sanders.)

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“No question, he’d be a polarizing choice,” Schier says.

Beyond that, conventional wisdom ascribes a lot of importance to picking a running-mate who can deliver a key state or region.

This is debatable: the past two vice presidents, Joe Biden and Dick Cheney, hail from states solidly within their own party’s column. But a candidate who can also offer appeal in a battleground state could put someone like Virginia’s Sen. Kaine over the edge.

Though Minnesotans cherish their political independence, the North Star State is no battleground state this election cycle. Minnesota has the longest active streak of any state for voting for Democratic nominees — the last Republican the state voted for was Richard Nixon, in 1972.

There’s little indication that trend will break in 2016: there is notably low enthusiasm for Trump in Minnesota, and it was the only state where he placed third in a caucus or primary.

Franken will play a role regardless

Franken, no doubt, would be a very bold choice for a politician whose defining trait may be her measured caution — and who could very well win against Trump simply by minimizing errors.

The senator has said he’d take the job if Clinton asked, but he’s also made clear that he doubts he’ll get that call: Franken told MinnPost in June that he “wasn’t worried” about having to consider a place on the presidential ticket. His staff says he is not being vetted by the Clinton campaign right now.

Clinton can also benefit from Franken’s talents — quips on the campaign trail, appearances at fundraising dinners — without having him on the ticket. Based on what Franken has said, he will be playing an active role in helping to get Clinton to the White House.

Still, Goldstein sees parallels between Franken and a legendary Minnesota veep — Walter Mondale.

“Franken, like Senator Mondale, both are from Minnesota, both from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party,” he said. “Mondale, among vice presidents, he was one of the wittiest vice presidents, a man who used his wit very effectively.”

“I think to the extent that Secretary Clinton might feel she needs to reach out to Sanders supporters, reach to her left in a sense, I think that Senator Franken might be one of the people who would help her do that.”