After winning election by the narrowest of margins in 2008, Sen. Al Franken looked like one of the GOP’s most inviting Senate targets in 2014. But instead, the party is facing the reality that Franken is proving to be a much more resilient opponent than expected, and his uncontroversial first term is raising doubts about whether Republicans can even recruit a first-tier candidate against the former Saturday Night Live funnyman.
"You can't play handball in an open field. At this point there's been no candidate," said former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, who lost to Franken in the 2008 race. "He's been pretty much invisible. In that sense he hasn't created a lot of enemies. I don't know if that's his strategy, but it's a pretty good strategy if it is.”
The list of potential, formidable candidates is short. Coleman, in an interview with National Journal, categorically said he wasn’t going to run for the Senate in 2014, denying the GOP one of its best-known possible challengers. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a popular House member from the Twin Cities suburbs, telegraphed his own hesitance about jumping into the Senate race on a local radio show. Coleman touted Rep. John Kline, another swing-district Republican, but he has passed up previous statewide bids in favor of building up tenure in the House. And Rep. Michele Bachmann, who would be formidable in a primary, would be the Democrats’ dream challenger, given her high unfavorables even back home. She barely won re-election in a solidly-Republican House district in 2012.
What’s clear is that Minnesota Republicans are wary of jumping head first into the contest, despite the obvious opportunities against Franken. After the 2012 elections, Republican Senate candidates Shelley Moore Capito and former South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds immediately announced their campaigns against Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Tim Johnson. By contrast, there’s barely been a peep from potential Franken challengers.
Franken’s ground game, fundraising, and out-of-the-limelight approach help explain why. Franken's campaign coffers are flush with cash. His job-approval rating, according to the most recent September Star-Tribune poll, is a healthy 52 percent. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., romped to reelection last November, winning nearly every county in the expansive state. Franken has raised nearly $4 million for 2014, with nearly $1.3 million cash on hand. That would give him a healthy head start over his opposition. (By contrast, the Republican Party of Minnesota is still struggling with $1.5 million in debt.)
Over the last election cycle, Franken's leadership PAC, Midwest Values PAC, raised $450,000 for his Senate colleagues, and Franken himself spent the election season campaigning on behalf of other Democrats, who made gains in the upper chamber. That’s a sign of confidence that he’s spending valuable time helping Democratic colleagues over preparing early for his own reelection. Such fundraising opens avenues for Franken to tap his colleagues for help come 2014.
Democratic strategists also point to the fact that Franken has consciously ignored the glare of the national media spotlight, preferring to speak to Minnesota media. They say he's laser-focused on talking about his record to Minnesotans and point to his sponsoring of the so-called Medical Loss Ratio rule that was passed as part of the Affordable Care Act.
And perhaps most important, nearly all of the damaging opposition research from Franken’s career as a comic was utilized in the heated 2008 Senate campaign. Next year, Franken’s GOP opponent will have to expand his playbook of attacks to draw blood the second time around. Indeed, Franken may be getting the last laugh in 2014 after all.