If anyone was supposed to be an easy target for defeat in 2014 it was going to be Sen. Al Franken. He won the disputed 2008 race by 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast. Today Franken is on none of the national lists of vulnerable incumbents. His latest approval rating sits at a comfortable 55 percent, and he has a very comfortable $3 million in his reelection bank account.
Until Saturday, only two Republicans were running against him: businessman and political unknown Mike McFadden and State Rep. Jim Abeler, a little known chiropractor from Anoka. On Saturday, State Sen. Julianne Ortman of Chanhassen announced she will also run against the senator. Ortman is a 12 year State Senate veteran and a former assistant Majority Leader. Charismatic and highly regarded within the Republican Party, she will be seen by many as the frontrunner for the GOP nomination. Among the more prominent Republicans turning down a chance to run against Franken are: former Gov. Tim Pawlently, Representatives John Kline and Erik Paulsen, and notably the man Franken barely defeated, former Sen. Norm Coleman.
How did it come to this? While there is still plenty of time for any of the Republican candidates to surge, or for that matter Franken to stumble, it is clear that Franken in large part, through a disciplined strategy of not just downplaying, but barely refusing to acknowledge his status as a nationally known comedian and writer has forged a solid path for a reelection bid. Franken has done less than a handful of national interviews during his four years in office. An appearance on Rachel Maddow show last month was his first national television cable appearance in memory. In contrast he is a frequent guest on local radio and television shows. His strategy of downplaying his fame has led him to avoid the downfall of many Washington political figures who become more Beltway than Main Street, (note to former Rep. Jim Oberstar.) Fears that Franken would approach the job with a slick Hollywood or even comic veneer have certainly not materialized. His answers in interviews are dripping with wonkish details, a sound bite machine he is definitely not. As the president has noted, Franken is now seen as the second funniest senator from Minnesota, eclipsed by the wit of Sen. Amy Klobuchar. It is Klobuchar, not Franken who routinely ends up as the Democrat’s pick when a comic touch is needed at a banquet.
And then there is substance. While Franken has mastered the art of backing measures that no one could be against, (service dogs for veterans comes to mind), he has also delivered on substance. While the ultimate verdict on Health Care Reform will likely rest on the success of state Health Care Exchanges (MnSure in Minnesota), it was Franken who authored what is widely seen as one of the most successful provisions in the bill. His provision that large insurers use 85 percent of premiums for actual services or be forced to rebate customers has resulted in 8.5 million American getting rebate checks. The president himself singled out the provision at a White House event last month.
The expectations for Franken, who was elected with less than 42 percent of the vote, were so low that for many Minnesotans any success would have come as a surprise. But the biggest surprise now is that it looks like he will be hard to beat. After a recent live local television interview the senator was asked if he could remain seated until the commercial break and then exit the studio. “Don’t worry”, he deadpanned, “I used to be in show business.” Yes he did, and right now that seems like a long time ago.