ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — In Minnesota’s surprise race to fill Al Franken’s former Senate seat, the two women running tell their own versions of a familiar story.
Democrat Tina Smith, who filled the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member’s seat in January after he resigned, recalls being asked if she could handle a grueling campaign. Her steely answer: “I should not be underestimated.”
Her Republican opponent, state Sen. Karin Housley, talks at campaign stops of her disbelief when her financial adviser told her to “stick to changing those diapers and putting a good meal on the table” when she asked about her portfolio. She studied up and wrote a book about investment instead.
Against the backdrop of the #MeToo movement that has swept high-profile men in politics, media and entertainment out of power, a record number of women are running for governor and Congress. No race is more emblematic of the changing landscape than Minnesota’s Senate contest, where the leading candidates are women seeking election to the seat of a man who resigned due to sexual misconduct allegations.
“I think we are maybe at a tipping point for women to say: ‘Yes I can do this job,'” Smith said in a recent interview. “For women to grasp that moment and run with it is a really exciting thing.”
Two other states, Washington and New York, have general election Senate matchups where both candidates are women. Arizona and Michigan may join them.
Senate campaigns are often drawn-out affairs, but Franken’s unexpected resignation made Minnesota’s race a relative sprint. His departure unexpectedly put another pivotal seat on the map for 2018 — Democrats already needed to hold ground in nearly two dozen blue states to have a shot at retaking control of the Senate.
From the start of Franken’s downfall, the focus has been on women — first on whom Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton would name to Franken’s seat and now on the women running to finish his term. Housley and Smith are well-known inside Minnesota’s state Capitol, but they are little-known statewide.
In an election triggered by women coming forward with sexual misconduct allegations, most prominent men in Minnesota politics stayed on the sidelines, including a former governor and several congressmen.
“I think the pattern is pretty clear that because of the nature of the seat … I think a lot of men decided, ‘No, let’s run for governor or let’s wait it out. This is not the year,'” said Celinda Lake, a national Democratic political strategist. “Women are coming in as insiders, women are coming in as outsiders. But they’re all communicating change.”
Within days of Franken announcing his resignation, Dayton assured the party faithful that he would pick a woman to fill the seat. He eventually turned to Smith, his lieutenant governor and longtime trusted aide, who spent years as Dayton’s top staffer before joining his ticket in 2014.
With just months and not years to go until Election Day, most Democrats quickly united behind Smith— as did Republicans with Housley. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison considered running for Franken’s seat before deciding against it and endorsing Smith. Her most prominent challenger is Richard Painter, a former ethics lawyer in George W. Bush’s administration and a former Republican who weighed a third-party bid before deciding to run as a Democrat.
Housley, the Republican, once ran for lieutenant governor herself. She’s a popular figure in Capitol circles with a last name many voters in hockey-mad Minnesota connect with her husband, Phil Housley, the Hall of Fame NHL defenseman who now coaches the Buffalo Sabres.
An energetic and engaging campaigner, Housley jumped into the race early, half expecting others to follow. But big-name men, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Reps. Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen, quickly passed. Housley faces two little-known Republican candidates in August for her party’s nomination.
“Maybe it was a factor in that no man did jump in. I just ran because I wanted to fight for what I believed in,” Housley said of the Republican field.
Whether it was a purposeful decision by would-be candidates or a coincidence, Jennifer DeJournett, who runs a political advocacy group called VOICES of Conservative Women in Minnesota, is glad that two women will likely face off to replace Franken.
“No one can claim the #MeToo movement, because there are two women running. Now we can get onto the point about whose ideas are best for Minnesota,” DeJournett said.
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