MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A 10-month sprint to finish former Minnesota Sen. Al Franken’s term reached a finish Tuesday as voters decided between two women: a longtime Democratic power player appointed in Franken’s place and a Republican state senator with a famous name in the hockey-crazy state.
Less than four years after voters overwhelmingly gave Franken a second term, he was swept out of office after several women accused of him of sexual misconduct. His resignation in December triggered the contest between his replacement, Democratic Sen. Tina Smith, and Republican state Sen. Karin Housley.
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Tuesday’s election was a rarity in Minnesota, with two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar was expected to easily capture a third term over little-known state Rep. Jim Newberger.
But Republicans jumped at the unexpected chance to reclaim an office they have not held since former Sen. Norm Coleman lost to Franken by 312 votes in 2008. Housley quickly emerged as the top GOP candidate, with her reputation as a fierce campaigner and a name recognition boost from her husband, former NHL star and Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley.
Republican men including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Reps. Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen quickly passed on the race, and Housley easily clinched the party’s nod in an August primary.
Public polling showed the race close, but it never seriously figured in the nationwide battle for control of the Senate. Outside political organizations with their eyes on the Senate majority spent just a trickle in Minnesota, focusing millions instead in North Dakota, Wisconsin and other more promising states.
Smith got a head start in the race when Gov. Mark Dayton announced in December that he would appoint her to Franken’s seat. Smith had been Dayton’s lieutenant governor since 2015 and a longtime trusted aide, serving as his chief of staff after a career spent running campaigns and as a Planned Parenthood executive.
After joining the Senate in January, Smith cultivated an image of a studious senator with sober, issue-focused ads on tackling pharmaceutical costs and vocational job training. She tried to avoid engaging with Housley throughout the campaign, even skipping a debate televised statewide and leaving Housley alone on stage. Smith said a busy campaign and Senate schedule got in the way, and the pair still had two debates.
But Housley bashed Smith for her absence and spent much of the campaign casting her as a longtime political insider with a hand in major flops during Dayton’s administration, including the rocky launch of a new driver-registration system and pervasive abuse and neglect at senior centers statewide.
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