Minnesota: The Anatomy of a Sleeper Senate Race

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
Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 22, 2014, 7:45 a.m.

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Spend time with Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) on the cam­paign trail and his reelec­tion strategy be­comes clear: Lay low and run out the clock. Even dur­ing Au­gust re­cess, Franken barely even ac­know­ledges he’s fa­cing a po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive cam­paign from busi­ness­man Mike Mc­Fad­den (R). He’d much rather talk about the state fair (which just opened Thursday) than the pres­id­ent’s re­cord on the eco­nomy, for­eign policy, or health care. — In­ter­est­ingly, Franken’s strategy runs against the game plan em­ployed by oth­er Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors out­side the first tier of battle­ground states. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), for in­stance, have main­tained act­ive cam­paign sched­ules and aren’t press-averse. The emer­ging Demo­crat­ic strategy of early at­tacks against newly-min­ted op­pon­ents hasn’t happened here. It’s not just can­did­ates be­ing “Min­nesota nice;” Franken’s team doesn’t want a lengthy cam­paign that could ex­pose his vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. — Min­nesota isn’t a top GOP op­por­tun­ity, but it heads the list of “sleep­er” races — a hand­ful of con­tests that could break late if the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is as tox­ic for Demo­crats as many statewide and na­tion­al polls sug­gest. After only min­im­al at­tacks this year, Franken’s run­ning just be­low 50 per­cent in GOP in­tern­al polling. An April Suf­folk Uni­versity poll (the most re­cent pub­lic live-caller sur­vey) showed him only tal­ly­ing 44 per­cent against Mc­Fad­den, who wasn’t even the nom­in­ee at the time. — Re­pub­lic­an are hardly bullish about their chances. They think Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton (D) are vul­ner­able, but they’re not op­tim­ist­ic about get­ting re­in­force­ments from Wash­ing­ton, giv­en the bevy of oth­er op­por­tun­it­ies Re­pub­lic­ans have. The state GOP is in debt, un­der­staffed, and doesn’t even have a full-time track­er de­voted to Franken. Mean­while, the Min­nesota DFL boasts one of the strongest state field op­er­a­tions in the coun­try. Mc­Fad­den is a sol­id but un­pol­ished first-time can­did­ate, and his busi­ness back­ground could make him a tough sell in the bell­weth­er, work­ing-class Iron Range re­gion. The two things GOP­ers have go­ing for them is the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment and Franken him­self. Most Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors up in 2014 can lean on per­son­al good­will in their home states. But Franken ended his dif­fi­cult 2008 cam­paign with weak ap­prov­al rat­ings and has im­proved his stand­ing mostly by avoid­ing the press. If Re­pub­lic­ans start en­ga­ging early, this race could get in­ter­est­ing. But Franken’s all-polit­ics-is-loc­al cam­paign strategy is work­ing so far, without much GOP push­back, mean­ing he may get the last laugh in Novem­ber.— Josh Kraush­aar

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