Al Franken’s fall was swift: in a span of about three weeks in 2017, the one-time liberal hero went from being the “giant” of the U.S. Senate to announcing his resignation on the Senate floor in the wake of a sexual misconduct scandal.
Franken’s political career is over for the foreseeable future and he’s mostly stepped out of the public eye. But there’s one vestige remaining of his former clout: over $4 million in cash, stashed in his re-election committee and personal PAC.
Normally, a politician like Franken would be well-positioned to continue a rich tradition of former elected officials playing kingmaker after leaving office, doling out leftover campaign cash to support the campaigns of allies, former colleagues, and those who share his political agenda.
But Franken’s money is no good: The scandalous circumstances surrounding his resignation make donations from his committees too politically radioactive for almost any candidate to accept.
The sidelining of Franken, once one of the Democratic Party’s strongest fundraisers, in an election cycle in which the party is aiming to take control of Congress is a blow to candidates who could benefit from his millions. For now, Franken has few ways to put that money to use — beyond sitting on it until he is no longer too politically damaging to cut a check to a Democratic candidate.
A rejection of Midwest Values (PAC)
Franken has always been a prolific rainmaker for Democrats: his personal “leadership” PAC, dubbed Midwest Values PAC, was raising millions for candidates even before Franken made the jump to the Senate. As his stature in D.C. increased, Midwest Values PAC became one of the top PACs linked to any member of Congress, Democrat or Republican.
Franken’s final year in the Senate was a particularly strong one for him: he raised more in 2017 for his re-election committee — over $3.6 million — than he did during 2015 and 2016 combined. Midwest Values PAC raised $2 million in 2017, topping its totals for the entire 2010, 2012, and 2014 cycles, and putting it on place to blow past the $3.3 million it raised during the 2016 election cycle.
At the close of 2017, Franken’s re-election committee — he was scheduled to face voters next in 2020 — had $3.2 million cash on hand, while Midwest Values PAC had $1.1 million on hand.
During 2017, Midwest Values PAC distributed $272,000 to Democratic candidates, including Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, Rick Nolan, and Collin Peterson. He gave generously to his Senate Democratic colleagues, particularly those facing tough re-election battles, like North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, Wisconsin Sen. Tammy Baldwin, and Montana Sen. Jon Tester.
He also wrote checks of $10,000 to several Senate Democrats considered contenders for the party’s nomination for president in 2020: New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
In late November, as the allegations against Franken surfaced, recipients of his political largesse provided a preview of how the senator might be sidelined: several Democrats announced that they would be donating funds received from Franken to charity.
Angie Craig, DFL candidate for Congress in Minnesota’s 2nd Congressional District, announced she would donate $15,000 in Franken contributions to charity. Warren, Baldwin, and Tester, and other senators all followed suit. By December 6, about three weeks after the first allegation against Franken, 21 Democratic officeholders and candidates had announced their intentions to donate money received from him.
Franken’s cash ‘toxic’
Most observers agreed that few candidates would want to cash a check from Franken, even if the former senator were aiming to play a role in the 2018 midterms. Franken has not done any interviews since leaving office on January 2, and he could not be reached for this article.
An aide said that Franken has not decided what he plans to do with the $4.1 million in political funds that he is currently sitting on, and even well-connected DFLers aren’t sure what Franken might do.
Darin Broton, a DFL strategist, said Franken’s money is “too toxic” for the 2018 midterms. Perhaps that warchest could be put to use in the 2020 election cycle or beyond, but Broton suggested that even then, Franken might have to route his money through other committees.
“That money could be given in the future to safe Democrats,” he explained, “who then could make transfers to other candidates or party committees.”
Franken has some other options: Stephen Spaulding, chief of strategy at the ethics and campaign finance watchdog group Common Cause, says that money in a campaign committee or leadership PAC fund can be used for almost any lawful purpose, as long as it is not for personal use.
“They can make contributions to other political campaigns, they can donate the money to charities, they can pay for winding down office expenses, or they can just sit on it,” he said. “Some campaigns sit on it for years and years.”
“For people like Sen. Franken, he can still wield influence. He can donate to other campaigns, he can convert his committee to a PAC, and spend money that way.”
Spaulding, noting the circumstances of Franken’s departure, said he could also refund contributors for their donations, because he will no longer stand for re-election. In the weeks following Franken’s announcement of his intent to resign, which came on December 7, his campaign committee refunded $17,000 worth of contributions. (Midwest Values PAC refunded just under $300.)
A generational divide
Even though some Democrats rushed to part ways with their Franken cash, and his committees refunded thousands of dollars, the senator was still raking in contributions, even after he announced he’d be stepping down.
In the 24 days between Franken’s resignation speech and the end of the year, more than 250 people contributed to his re-election campaign, totaling some $11,800 in support for a politician whose career in elected office had effectively ended. Thirty-three people donated to his committee on the day Franken gave his speech.
As it continued to receive contributions, Franken’s campaign committee also continued to spend. Federal records show that in that 24-day period in December, the committee spent some $37,000 on events, airfare, and lodging expenses. That included a $11,000 charge for “catering’ to Common Roots Cafe in south Minneapolis on December 21. (On December 28, Franken held a farewell event in northeast Minneapolis.)
The financial support for Franken, even after he was ousted, is reflective of the frustration, sadness, and even anger felt by many liberals who believed that Franken was unfairly forced out, or even the target of a right-wing conspiracy. Polling conducted during the fallout from his scandal found anywhere from one third to one half of Minnesotans believed Franken should not resign.
From the vantage point of Luke Hellier, a longtime GOP operative, the response to the Franken episode revealed a stark generational divide on both sides, with younger people more uncompromising on gender issues than their elders, and more vocal in calling for the resignation of politicians, like Franken, accused of misconduct.
That could continue to be a meaningful divide going forward, as memory of Franken’s exit from Congress fades, but his money remains, and he considers how to put it to use. Politicians sympathetic to Franken, many of whom are older, could soon be happy to receive support from the former senator, Hellier suggested, while younger politicians might continue to shun him.
He used the examples of Craig — the 46-year old candidate in CD2 who donated Franken’s contributions — and the retired longtime DFL state representative, Phyllis Kahn, who publicly called on Franken to remain in office even as his colleagues called on him to leave.
“Maybe today his money is on the sideline, but certainly, I think people like [Kahn] would say, I don’t mind taking his money,” Hellier said.
“I think it’s a generational thing. If you ask Republicans and Democrats of a younger generation, there’s just no tolerance for harassment at any point, and you’ll continue to see that division for a while.”