Senator Al Franken? No Longer a Longshot
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The latest poll of Minnesota voters shows Republican Senator Norm Coleman, up for re-election in 2008, with 49 per cent, and Democratic challenger Al Franken at 42 -- a seven-point spread. Four months ago, Coleman was ahead by 22. The reason for Coleman's shocking collapse in the polls? He's been supporting Bush on the war.
Any incumbent with less than 50 per cent in the polls a year before the election is considered to be in trouble. Coleman is in trouble, according to the SurveyUSA poll released July 30, especially with women, independents and Twin Cities voters.
Defeating Norm Coleman would be a particularly sweet victory for the anti-war movement. In his college days at Hofstra, Coleman was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam war. The school suspended him in 1970 for participating in a sit-in protesting the Kent State killings. He first won office in St. Paul as a Democrat, chaired the 1996 Senate campaign of Paul Wellstone, and then switched parties and ran for the Senate in 2002 against Wellstone. Wellstone died in a plane crash a week before that election, and Norm Coleman went to the Senate.
Coleman's support for the war has made him the target of both the national Democratic party and independent antiwar groups. The Democrats are already running a TV ad campaign criticizing him for opposing the troop pullout vote in the Senate on July 12. Al Franken ran a full-page newspaper ad highlighting the same vote. (He also has a terrific YouTube video, showing his mastery of the new medium -- he knows he's talking to one person at a time, rather than to 200 million at once.)
Coleman has also been targeted by organizers from the antiwar group Iraq Summer, which, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune , has persuaded two dozen of Coleman's neighbors in St. Paul to put up lawn signs condemning his support for the war. Americans United for Change is also running a strong TV ad attacking his support for the war.
Coleman has fought back -- not on the war (he recently said, "We are going to be in Iraq a long time"), but rather on Franken's ties to out-of-state money. The latest fundraising reports showed that Franken raised more than Coleman, $1.9 million in the quarter than ended June 30, while Coleman raised $1.5 million. But Coleman said that only 18 per cent of Franken's money came from inside Minnesota, while 50 per cent of his money did. Franken's out-of-state contributors include Rosie O'Donnell, Bill Maher and Dan Aykroyd, which led the Coleman camp to declare, "No matter how many millions he raises from his far-left friends outside our state, Al Franken won't be able to convince Minnesotans he has the temperament, demeanor and experience necessary for the U.S. Senate." Franken responded that he got more people from Minnesota to contribute to his campaign than Coleman did, especially in small contributions.
Al Franken gets the credit for leading in fundraising, but he doesn't get the credit for Coleman's poor showing in the polls. Coleman fares just as badly against the other declared Democratic candidate, attorney Mike Ciresi. And Coleman remains below that crucial 50 percent line even when matched against a virtual unknown, activist Jim Cohen.
Before Franken can take on Norm Coleman, he has to defeat Mike Ciresi in the Democratic primary. Ciresi gained national fame as the state attorney general who defeated Big Tobacco. Like Franken, he's a good Minnesota liberal who is opposed to the war. He's also independently wealthy. He ran in the 2000 primary and lost. The state party will endorse one of them at its convention next June.
Norm Coleman is not alone among Republican senators facing reelection in 2008 who have made themselves vulnerable by supporting the war. In New Hampshire, John E. Sununu trails one possible Democratic challenger 57 to 22. In Kentucky, Mitch McConnell is polling at 48 per cent approval. In Maine, Susan Collins is considered vulnerable, as is Gordon Smith in Oregon, even though he is now calling for a US troop withdrawal.
Meanwhile back in Minnesota the Republican senator is not running away from the President. On the contrary, Bush is coming to Minnesota on August 21 for a Coleman fundraiser in suburban Eden Prairie. That will be less than three weeks after the bridge collapse in Minneapolis, and after Minnesotans were reminded by a Star-Tribune columnist that Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty vetoed a tax increase last spring that would have funded infrastructure repair. Democrats see the Bush event as a gift.
Jon Wiener, a contributing editor of The Nation and a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine, is the author of several books, including Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, Professors, Politics and Pop and Historians in Trouble . He lives in Los Angeles.