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Resignation or not, what should Democrats do with Franken campaign money?

Franken’s Midwest Values PAC has emerged as a top funder of Democratic candidates.

Sen. Al Franken speaking to attendees of the 2016 Election Night DFL gathering in Minneapolis.
MinnPost file photo by Bill Kelley

As the country processes the news that Leeann Tweeden accused Sen. Al Franken of forcibly kissing her in 2006 — and posted a photo in which the senator appears to grope her while she is asleep — politicians from both parties are carefully considering their responses.

The big question they are grappling with has been whether or not to call on Franken to resign his seat. But beyond that, there’s another important question, and one that more directly affects dozens of Democratic politicians around the country: what do you do with Franken’s money?

Franken, both as a U.S. Senator and political commentator, has been a prolific fundraiser for the Democratic Party: since 2006, he has distributed $2.4 million to candidates for federal and state office, as well as the Democratic Party and associated committees, through his personal political action committee, dubbed Midwest Values PAC.

All of the Democratic members of the Minnesota congressional delegation, along with all of Franken’s Democratic Senate colleagues, have received significant campaign contributions from Midwest Values PAC.

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Since the news broke on Thursday, at least one Minnesota Democrat, Angie Craig, a candidate for U.S. House in Minnesota’s 2nd District, announced she would be donating $15,000 in contributions from Franken. So far, she’s the only Minnesotan to do so, though politicians from other states have also pledged to donate the funds to charitable causes.

‘We must have zero tolerance’

The breadth and depth of Franken’s campaign cash largesse presents an unprecedented challenge for those who have benefited from it. Franken’s PAC has doled out contributions since before he was a U.S. Senator, and as his own political standing in Minnesota improved, he had become a leading fundraiser in the Democratic Party.

By the end of the 2016 election cycle, Franken’s Midwest Values PAC ranked in the top 25 of the hundreds of leadership PACs in Congress, in terms of contributions to candidates. He contributed more than his party’s leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer, and dished out more than his party’s most visible star in the Senate, Elizabeth Warren.

In terms of funds raised, no current Democratic member of Congress outraised Franken in 2016: his PAC pulled in $3.3 million in donations.

Each Democratic member of the Minnesota delegation has received donations from Franken’s PAC. First District Rep. Tim Walz has netted the most — $50,000 from Midwest Values PAC since his first run for Congress in 2006.

Since 2006, Fifth District Rep. Keith Ellison has received $32,500, Sen. Amy Klobuchar has received $30,000, 8th District Rep. Rick Nolan has received $28,000, 7th District Rep. Collin Peterson has received $15,000, and 4th District Rep. Betty McCollum has received $14,000.

MinnPost has reached out to all of these lawmakers’ offices to ask what they intend to do with contributions from Franken. As of press time, none have responded. (This post will be updated with their responses, if any are received.)

Though Franken has donated to the campaigns of many Democratic hopefuls over the years, the only current non-office-holding candidate who has received money from him is Craig, who is running a second time for the 2nd Congressional District seat. She lost by less than two points in 2016 to Rep. Jason Lewis.

In a statement on Thursday, Craig said “These allegations against Sen. Franken are serious and I condemn his actions… We must have zero tolerance regardless of political party.” She said she will donate $15,000 to 360 Communities, a Burnsville nonprofit that assists survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.

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Beyond Minnesota, Franken has proven a reliable donor to his Democratic Senate colleagues, and to Democratic candidates seeking Senate seats. This election cycle alone — one in which 10 Democrats are up for reelection in states won by Donald Trump — Franken has given $115,000 to date to Democrats.

Several vulnerable Democrats up for re-election next year have already moved to donate contributions from Franken. Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill will give $30,000 to a food bank, Montana Sen. Jon Tester will give $25,000 to a domestic violence nonprofit in his state, and Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin will give $20,000 to a nonprofit for female veterans.

Several Senate Democrats mentioned as potential 2020 presidential candidates have Franken contributions in their coffers, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and, of course, Klobuchar. Of those five, Brown has pledged to return Franken donations.

A growing trend

In recent years, the call for politicians to relinquish the money they received from powerful men accused or convicted of sexual misconduct has become a regular part of these news cycles.

In 2016, when former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, an Illinois Republican, was sentenced to a year in jail for sexually abusing boys, Democrats called on Republicans who received support from Hastert to give back any donations.

Some did: 3rd District GOP Rep. Erik Paulsen donated $1,000 in contributions from Hastert’s PAC to charity, shortly after Hastert was sentenced to jail time. Former GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, of Illinois, donated $10,000 in money he received from Hastert’s PAC to charity.

In October, as stories of entertainment mogul Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse and assault spread, pressure mounted on Democrats — primarily from Republicans and their associated campaign organizations — to return his donations. Weinstein was one of the Democratic Party’s most generous donors, having contributed over $1 million to Democratic candidates and committees since 2000.

Franken himself received $20,000 in Weinstein money over the years, and in October, he donated that sum to the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center.

Calls for politicians to return “dirty money” have often served a transparently political purpose, as operatives in both parties’ House and Senate campaign organizations usually lead the charge with these efforts.

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The National Republican Congressional Committee, the GOP’s House campaign arm, has called on all Democrats to return campaign money from Franken.