Election 2008

Al Franken Is Leading in the Nastiest, Most Expensive Senate Race in the Country

Minnesota GOP senator Norm Coleman has engaged in McCain-style smear efforts against Franken, and is paying the price in the polls.
In the early days of his campaign to oust incumbent Republican senator Norm Coleman, Al Franken answered charges of carpetbagging by joking that he was the only New York Jew in the race who actually grew up in Minnesota. He retired the line last summer, but the Franken campaign has lately revived its spirit by emphasizing the fact that the candidate didn't just grow up in Minnesota, but in middle-class Minnesota. Less than two weeks before Election Day, the debate in the Land of a Thousand Lakes is right where Franken wants it, at the kitchen table, focused on the issues he has been running on from the start: falling wages, rising tuition, health care, jobs. As it has for Democrats across the country, recent turmoil in the financial markets has heightened receptivity to Franken's broad progressive agenda. It is an opportunity that the Franken campaign and its army of 80,000 volunteers intend to seize in the final days of the bloodiest, costliest senate race this cycle.

"It's all about the economy right now in Minnesota, and Norm Coleman is irrevocably tied to Bush's economic policies," says Franken's spokesperson, Andy Barr. "We're the ones offering change and ideas. Al Franken is the only candidate in the country proposing a $5,000 tax credit for post-secondary education. Struggling families need that kind of help more than ever. As they say, we're fired up and ready to go."

The latest polls show Franken with a composite poll position lead of between 2 and 3 points, which he has held since the beginning of October -- his first sustained lead of the race. Whichever candidate proves the better stretch runner, the barrage from the other side will continue through until Election Day. Franken and Coleman together raised more than $7 million in the period ending Sept. 30, with Franken pulling in more than $4.4 million. The two campaigns will go out in a blaze of last-minute ads, an appropriate finale to the most expensive campaign in Minnesota history. Altogether, the candidates have raised $34 million between them ($18 million for Coleman; $16 million for Franken.)

But all that money isn't just sowing doubt about the other guy. A good chunk of Minnesotans turned off by the negative ads and the mudslinging now have doubts about both guys and have turned to Independent Party candidate Dean Barkley. A former lawyer and current bus driver, Barkley briefly occupied Paul Wellstone's Senate seat after the Democratic senator was killed in a plane crash in October 2002. Barkley is currently polling at 18 percent, but despite his firm opposition to the Iraq War and his general appeal with Democrats (he was once approached by state Dems about challenging Michele Bachmann's 6th District seat), polls indicate that Barkley is sucking more votes away from Coleman than from Franken. There are also indications that this is his intent. In the last debate between the three men, Barkley unleashed his most ferocious attacks on Coleman. At a recent American Legion Club luncheon with press, Barkley gleefully admitted that he was gaining ground at the expense of the Republican, making the oddly Marxist-sounding boast that he has "demystified Norm Coleman for the people of Minnesota."

But if Franken is being helped by Barkley's candidacy, Coleman shouldn't look too far away from the mirror when contemplating how he fell behind in the polls. Unable to run on his record of Bush cheerleading (Coleman voted with the president 86 percent of the time), the first-term Republican early turned the campaign into one designed to offend the sensibilities of "Minnesota Nice." Speaking to Minnesota Public Radio, Barkley spoke for many when he described the campaign as "disgusting -- the most negative in history."

Earlier this month, surveys showed that the public overwhelmingly blamed Coleman for the nasty tone of the campaign, with a majority considering his ads to be "mostly unfair personal attacks." The Republican promptly held a press conference to declare he was taking his negative ads off the air, a smart if belated decision. The last of Coleman's negative ads in particular put a sting in the backlash against him. It attempted to call Franken's temperament into question with video of the Democrat ranting and raving. It turned out the footage captured Franken dramatizing a humorous story that involved his dead friend and Minnesota icon Wellstone. Oops.

Despite Coleman's last-minute switch to issue-driven campaigning -- the latest conversion in a zigzag political career that began as a late-New Left longhair -- the first-term senator is finding it difficult to extricate himself from association with the most unctuous trends and tactics in American politics. This is because recent months have thrown a harsh germicidal light on Coleman's close personal and professional ties to a pioneering legend of sleazy campaigning, Jeff Larson.

Last June, National Journal broke a story that sounded like the beginning of another GOP gay sex scandal: Coleman was basically being "kept" in the English basement of a million-dollar Capitol Hill townhouse owned by his good buddy Larson, a managing partner in the Republican telemarketing and consulting firm FLS-Connect. Larson is best known for his firm's robo-calls on behalf of Bush/Cheney in the 2000 South Carolina GOP primary. (Larson's longtime FLS-Connect partner, Tony Feather, is a close friend and acolyte of Karl Rove.) Although Coleman claimed he pays $600 a month for use of the property, the National Journaland follow-ups by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune showed that Coleman's rent checks were delivered and cashed erratically at best, and that the apartment's utilities were gratis until brought to light. This last detail alone constitutes a violation of the congressional gift ban.

Today Larson's company holds the contract to perform the 2008 corollary to its South Carolina campaign eight years ago: It is overseeing robo-calls around the country that link "extreme leftist" Barack Obama to "domestic terrorist" William Ayers, who "killed Americans."

Aside from literally sleeping in the firm's Washington office (also located in Larson's basement), Coleman has extensive business and personal ties to FLS-Connect. One of Coleman's closest advisers, Larson has served as treasurer of Coleman's PAC, Northstar Leadership, which in turn has paid FLS-Connect nearly $200,000 for services, according to records filed at the Federal Election Commission. Coleman's campaigns, meanwhile, have paid FLS-Connect more than $1.6 million for consulting services and rent.

Given his strong ties to the world's scumbaggiest for-hire Republican hit machine, Coleman is having a hard time getting Minnesotans to believe he has seen the light, as evidenced by a sudden refocus on the economy during the final days of the campaign. Meanwhile, outside interest groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Builders and Contractors have not taken their personal attack ads off the air. Rather, they have intensified them, sometimes after consultation with Larson.
Coleman's ties to Larson also undercut his recent tepid condemnation of fellow Minnesota Republican Bachmann, who has last week gained national notoriety for her ungrammatical imitation of Joe McCarthy in shoulder pads. To the extent the Franken campaign can draw the connection between Bachmann's broken hinges and the national "anti-American" FLS-Connect campaign carried out by Coleman's consigliere, this could be yet another drag on Coleman down the home stretch. Bachmann's outburst has already caused a tall spike in donations flowing to Minnesota Democrats from across the country.

Of course, it's possible Franken won't need any more help to reclaim Wellstone's seat for the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. With an economy in crisis, a bold progressive agenda, Obama's coattails and a volunteer get-out-the-vote army 80,000 strong, who needs Bachmann?
Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.
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