Why Sen. Al Franken Is Spending Millions

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 11: U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) speaks during a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee December 11, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held the hearing on 'Continued Oversight of U.S. Government Surveillance Authorities.'
National Journal
Michael Catalini
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Michael Catalini
Feb. 24, 2014, 4:48 p.m.

A hand­ful of scary polit­ic­al pos­sib­il­it­ies worry Min­nesota Demo­crats. They fret that the base won’t turn out this year, that con­ser­vat­ive groups will blanket the state in neg­at­ive ads, and that the Af­ford­able Care Act will weigh down the tick­et.

But Sen. Al Franken is not tak­ing chances, pour­ing mil­lions of dol­lars in­to his reelec­tion cam­paign even though his seat is widely con­sidered safe and a for­mid­able Re­pub­lic­an op­pon­ent has yet to emerge.

On pa­per, Franken’s cam­paign has spent more than $15 mil­lion so far, mak­ing the Min­nesota race one of the most ex­pens­ive con­tests this cycle, ahead of closely watched cam­paigns in Arkan­sas, Ken­tucky, Louisi­ana, and North Car­o­lina, ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ter for Re­spons­ive Polit­ics.

It’s also not sur­pris­ing, Demo­crats say, be­cause Franken won his first race in 2008 by just 312 votes, nar­rowly edging out former GOP Sen. Norm Cole­man even as Pres­id­ent Obama car­ried Min­nesota by 10 per­cent­age points. The re­count, which stretched in­to 2009, plus cam­paign debts, help ex­plain the $15 mil­lion. If those costs are factored out, spend­ing is closer to $7.5 mil­lion, Franken’s camp points out.

Even so, Franken is in for a high-spend­ing cam­paign, giv­en that the av­er­age win­ning Sen­ate ef­fort spent about $10.4 mil­lion in 2012, that Franken’s cam­paign still had al­most $5 mil­lion in the bank in Decem­ber and that the elec­tion is still more than half a year away.

The ex­penses are jus­ti­fied, Demo­crats say, to ward off Re­pub­lic­ans and pre­vent an­oth­er anxi­ety-in­du­cing re­count.

“Any­one who would sug­gest this race is over nine months early is fool­ing them­selves,” said Demo­crat­ic-Farm­er-Labor Party Chair­man Ken Mar­tin. “Even if you would say this isn’t a com­pet­it­ive race right now, they’re do­ing the things they need to do to keep it from be­com­ing a com­pet­it­ive race. That’s why you spend the money.”

Franken’s cam­paign stresses that it is spend­ing at such a high clip to send a sig­nal to con­ser­vat­ive out­side groups like Amer­ic­ans for Prosper­ity, which is jab­bing Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bent Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina.

“The best way to com­bat those at­tacks and keep Sen. Franken in the Sen­ate fight­ing for middle-class Min­nesotans is to in­vest early and build a strong grass­roots in­fra­struc­ture,” cam­paign spokes­wo­man Al­ex­an­dra Fetis­soff said in a state­ment.

A former Sat­urday Night Live writer, comedi­an, and au­thor, who re­cently held a fun­draiser with Jon Hamm of Mad Men fame in Min­neapol­is, Franken rakes in cash from both deep-pock­eted stars and small donors. His cam­paign touts the fact that 97 per­cent of his con­tri­bu­tions so far this year have been for $100 or less.

When it comes to spend­ing, Franken has laid out a great deal on fun­drais­ing it­self (it takes money to raise money). The pro­spect that the Demo­crat­ic base could stay home in Novem­ber means that Franken has also spent heav­ily on field op­er­a­tions and build­ing in­fra­struc­ture across the state, Mar­tin said.

If turnout is a worry, then former Demo­crat­ic Rep. Tim Penny of Min­nesota val­id­ates that con­cern. Penny, who served from 1983 to 1994, said he in­tends to stay out of the Sen­ate race, not be­cause he doesn’t like Franken, but be­cause of polit­ic­al fa­tigue.

“They’re spend­ing mega-mil­lions,” Penny said. “I’m just done with it. They’ll find their money some­where.”

By con­trast, Franken’s GOP op­pon­ents have raised and spent far less.

Busi­ness­man Mike Mc­Fad­den, who has the back­ing of sev­er­al es­tab­lish­ment Re­pub­lic­ans in­clud­ing Cole­man, raised roughly $1.5 mil­lion and spent about $541,000 so far this cycle. State Sen. Ju­li­anne Ort­man, who re­cently won a party straw poll, has raised more than a quarter of a mil­lion dol­lars and spent about $117,000.

Rather than shoot­ing at each oth­er, both Re­pub­lic­ans have taken aim at Franken.

“If that much has been spent in this race, it’s been spent in­ef­fect­ively,” Ort­man said. Ad­ded Mc­Fad­den spokes­man Tom Er­ick­son: “Money doesn’t win elec­tions. Ideas do. … Ideas are what’s gonna mat­ter most in this race.”

Like their na­tion­al coun­ter­parts, Min­nesota Re­pub­lic­ans are fo­cus­ing their at­tacks on Obama­care. With Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing hov­er­ing in the mid-40s in blue Min­nesota ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Star Tribune poll, it’s un­clear wheth­er Franken will ap­pear with the pres­id­ent when he’s in Min­nesota this week.

What is less murky, though, is that Franken isn’t leav­ing much to chance this time around.

“His spend­ing pat­terns re­flect the fact that na­tion­al races are volat­ile these days,” said former Demo­crat­ic state le­gis­lat­or Matt En­tenza. “I think the fact that he’s spend­ing this kind of money is like buy­ing in­sur­ance.”

CLA­RI­FIC­A­TION: A story Tues­day re­por­ted that Sen. Al Franken’s cam­paign has spent more than $15 mil­lion on his reelec­tion ef­fort. In­form­a­tion provided by the cam­paign after the story was pub­lished in­dic­ates that about $7.5 mil­lion was spent on reelec­tion, with the re­mainder spent on the re­count in his last elec­tion and to re­tire cam­paign debt.

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