Finding Al Franken

The comedian-turned-senator is running an unusually low-key reelection campaign, trying to avoid scrutiny. Will Republicans get the last laugh?

Senator Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota, speaks about net neutrality for the Internet during a discussion hosted by the Free Press Action Fund on Capitol Hill in Washington on July 8, 2014.
National Journal
Josh Kraushaar
Aug. 28, 2014, 1 a.m.

ST. PAUL, Minn.””I flew to Min­nesota with high hopes of talk­ing with Sen. Al Franken, and his staff said I’d get my chance dur­ing a “me­dia avail­ab­il­ity” fol­low­ing a speech on the 50th an­niversary of the Job Corps. But when I ar­rived at the Hubert H. Humphrey Job Corps Cen­ter, I dis­covered I was the only re­port­er there, and Franken’s deputy com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or””one of three of his staffers work­ing the event””said that the sen­at­or was in a rush. Could I walk and talk on the way out?

So as we walked through the gym­nas­i­um out­side to­ward the cam­pus’s small park­ing lot, I asked Franken a per­func­tory ques­tion about his work with job-train­ing pro­grams, and a minute later, as we ap­proached his car, how he rated Pres­id­ent Obama’s hand­ling of the eco­nomy. “I can’t do that briefly, we have to run,” Franken said.

Then he got in his car and left.

Since de­feat­ing Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Norm Cole­man in a nasty, down-to-a-re­count race in 2008, Al Franken has made him­self a stranger to the na­tion­al press, dodging re­port­ers in the halls of the Cap­it­ol and rarely grant­ing in­ter­views to na­tion­al me­dia out­lets in an ex­ten­ded ef­fort to prove he’s a ser­i­ous poli­cy­maker and not a spot­light-hog­ging celebrity. Now, as he faces his first reelec­tion chal­lenge, I wanted to see if things are any dif­fer­ent back home. They’re not.

I caught up with Franken again the day after the Job Corps speech””at 6 a.m., as the gates opened at the Min­nesota State Fair. I asked him how the cam­paign was go­ing, but his cam­paign spokes­wo­man, Al­ex­an­dra Fetis­soff, changed the sub­ject: “Fair ques­tions are much more fun to ask!” So I asked the sen­at­or what fair foods he’d re­com­mend, and a fili­buster fol­lowed: “You can­not not get the roast corn. Min­nesota has the best sweet corn in the coun­try, hands down, but this sweet corn””they ac­tu­ally have a ded­ic­ated kind of vari­ety, a spe­cial, acres and acres of sweet corn, and it’s so de­li­cious that I’ve had hun­dreds of corn over my years here. And I nev­er had an ear that wasn’t un­be­liev­able.” Franken went on: “I like the wal­leye on a stick, it’s much bet­ter than I ever thought. Do you like chocol­ate-chip cook­ies be­cause they have a buck­et of cook­ies with a bot­tom­less glass of milk be­cause the milk is really cold and really de­li­cious.” He then went to the Farm­er’s Uni­on booth to greet sup­port­ers.

When he was done, I got about four minutes to talk with Franken about the cam­paign and is­sues. Asked about the race, he said: “Now we’re about two and a half months away, so it co­in­cides with the sea­son kick­ing in. I’m look­ing for­ward to the cam­paign, I really am. I’m get­ting good vibes around the state.” When I asked about the polit­ic­al mood in Min­nesota, Franken said, “I’m not sure if people are com­pletely pin­point ex­actly why [they’re up­set at Wash­ing­ton], and that’s go­ing to be part of the cam­paign. We can do bet­ter. Even though we have a lower un­em­ploy­ment rate than the rest of the coun­try, people are still feel­ing squeezed in the middle class, and so many of the new jobs aren’t high-pay­ing jobs.” Franken said he had some “dis­agree­ments” with Pres­id­ent Obama over how to best ap­proach the eco­nomy, but he praised the pres­id­ent’s stim­u­lus and pro­posed 2011 jobs pack­age. And he em­phas­ized he was fo­cused on “middle-class jobs” and in­fra­struc­ture spend­ing, while also sup­port­ing un­named “smart cuts.”

As he left, he went over what soun­ded like the day’s cam­paign sched­ule with his staffers, but they wouldn’t di­vulge where he was headed. “We’re com­ing back to the fair today,” Franken’s spokes­man said, as he left the premises. The fair was his only an­nounced cam­paign event dur­ing the en­tire week; his cam­paign didn’t of­fer any de­tails on when he would re­turn later that day. The week I was in Min­nesota, his cam­paign pos­ted pic­tures from a “vo­lun­teer rally” on Face­book””one his staff hadn’t an­nounced to the press.

THE STAKES

As Re­pub­lic­ans aim to take con­trol of the Sen­ate, with a bevy of red-state Demo­crats look­ing to be in trouble, Min­nesota’s Sen­ate race isn’t at the top of the GOP’s takeover list. But it heads the list of “sleep­er” races””one of a hand­ful of con­tests that have the po­ten­tial to break late if the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is as tox­ic for Demo­crats as some na­tion­al polls sug­gest. Un­like oth­er Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors re­spond­ing to new­found chal­lenges by en­ga­ging their op­pos­i­tion early, Franken is run­ning an un­usu­ally low-key race, giv­ing off the vibe that there’s noth­ing to see here. After I tweeted my Min­nesota travel plans, the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, Matt Canter, mocked the sug­ges­tion that this was a po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive race.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5201) }}

In real­ity, polls from both parties show Franken with only a tenu­ous ad­vant­age over his chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an busi­ness­man Mike Mc­Fad­den. Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al num­bers are weak in Min­nesota, with a Suf­folk Uni­versity poll con­duc­ted in April re­veal­ing a 43 per­cent rat­ing. The same sur­vey shows Franken polling at 44 per­cent against Mc­Fad­den, with his net fa­vor­ab­il­ity at 46 per­cent/41 per­cent. (A robo-poll, con­duc­ted this week by Sur­vey­USA, showed Franken up 51 per­cent to 42 per­cent, with a 56 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing.) But un­like oth­er Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in swing states, Franken hasn’t done any­thing, even sym­bol­ic­ally, to dis­tance him­self from the un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent. A Na­tion­al Journ­al vote ana­lys­is con­duc­ted this month showed that, in the past two years, Franken has cast only two votes against party lead­er­ship out of 161””a 99 per­cent re­cord that beats Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren.

“In his pri­or ca­reer, he was known for ex­plos­ive sar­casm. I think they’re keep­ing him un­der wraps for good reas­on.”

Giv­en that po­ten­tial bag­gage, Franken’s cam­paign has been air­ing a series of ad­vert­ise­ments fea­tur­ing the le­gis­la­tion he’s in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate, in­clud­ing bills crack­ing down on tain­ted food, a work­force-train­ing bill, and a cred­it-rat­ing amend­ment. Un­like some oth­er tar­geted Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents””who have ag­gress­ively at­tacked their op­pos­i­tion early and eagerly sought to con­trast their re­cord with the battered GOP brand””Franken has fo­cused on loc­al ac­com­plish­ments, avoid­ing the na­tion­al is­sues that are driv­ing the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton. In our short time to­geth­er, Franken nev­er men­tioned Mc­Fad­den by name, barely ac­know­ledging there was a cam­paign go­ing on.

“The Franken cam­paign strategy is, they’ve got a lot of money, lot of in­fra­struc­ture, and that there’s a down­side to too much ex­pos­ure,” said Car­leton Col­lege polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Steven Schi­er. “In his pri­or ca­reer, he was known for ex­plos­ive sar­casm. I think they’re keep­ing him un­der wraps for good reas­on. The hos­til­ity to Wash­ing­ton is as high in Min­nesota as it is any­where.”

Des­pite the op­por­tun­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans are hardly bullish about their chances. Re­pub­lic­an strategists in Min­nesota view Franken as thin-skinned and prone to make mis­takes un­der pres­sure. But those not in­volved with the cam­paign ex­pressed con­cern that Mc­Fad­den is be­ing too “Min­nesota nice,” and that out­side groups are too fo­cused on the many oth­er com­pet­it­ive races, ig­nor­ing the po­ten­tial op­por­tun­ity against Franken. Out­side groups have spent less than $100,000 against Franken, a pit­tance com­pared with the mil­lions they’ve shelled out against vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors such as Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina and Mark Ud­all in Col­or­ado. Free­dom Part­ners, a Koch broth­ers-af­fil­i­ated group, is spend­ing $3.6 mil­lion in Demo­crat­ic-friendly Ore­gon in an at­tempt to un­seat Sen. Jeff Merkley, but the con­ser­vat­ive bank­rollers have steered clear of Min­nesota so far. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce en­dorsed Mc­Fad­den this month, but hasn’t (yet) pledged to air ad­vert­ise­ments on his be­half.

“[Out­side groups] want to see polling that shows the race close be­fore they start spend­ing,” said one vet­er­an Min­nesota GOP strategist. “And that won’t hap­pen un­til they start spend­ing money against Franken. It’s a mat­ter of who blinks first.”

THE OP­PON­ENT

Mc­Fad­den, an in­vest­ment banker with the Min­nesota firm Laz­ard Middle Mar­ket, is a new­comer to polit­ics. The 49-year-old busi­ness­man grew up in Neb­raska, moved to Min­nesota to play col­lege foot­ball at the Uni­versity of St. Thomas, and went to law school at Geor­getown Uni­versity be­fore re­turn­ing to his ad­op­ted state in 1993. He’s run­ning as a prag­mat­ic busi­ness lead­er in the mold of neigh­bor­ing Wis­con­sin Sen. Ron John­son, fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy, Franken’s vote for the Af­ford­able Care Act, the sen­at­or’s op­pos­i­tion to the Key­stone XL pipeline, and ex­pan­ded en­ergy pro­duc­tion as the center­pieces of his cam­paign.

Mc­Fad­den has dabbled in polit­ics since his first vote in 1984 for Ron­ald Re­agan, but he hasn’t been dir­ectly in­volved in fed­er­al cam­paigns, out­side of sev­er­al small dona­tions over the past dec­ade. Re­cords show he donated $2,000 to Mitt Rom­ney’s cam­paign in Au­gust 2012, $1,000 to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee that same year, and $1,500 to Norm Cole­man in 2008, but that was the ex­tent of his fed­er­al polit­ic­al con­tri­bu­tions be­fore launch­ing his own cam­paign. Mc­Fad­den por­trays him­self as a polit­ic­al out­sider and be­moans the “pro­fes­sion­al class of politi­cians” in Con­gress.

“In 2012, I was so de­pressed after the elec­tion””we lost the pres­id­ency, we lost the state House and Sen­ate, and the party was decim­ated in Min­nesota. One of my ob­ser­va­tions was that we’d cre­ated this pro­fes­sion­al class of politi­cian in this coun­try,” Mc­Fad­den said. “I’m a coach, I’m a busi­ness­man, have nev­er been a politi­cian. And I’m proud of it.”

Walk in­to Mc­Fad­den’s of­fice park headquar­ters in sub­urb­an Eagan, and you can’t miss his pas­sion for foot­ball. As I ar­rived, a cam­paign staffer was toss­ing around a pig­skin to him­self in­side the spa­cious of­fice. In­spir­a­tion­al quotes from famed NFL coaches Vince Lom­bardi (“Com­mit to ex­cel­lence every day”) and, yes, Jim Har­baugh (“En­thu­si­asm un­known to man­kind”) are plastered on the bare walls in both the work­space and the can­did­ate’s own of­fice. Mc­Fad­den’s old­est son, Con­or, played foot­ball at Stan­ford Uni­versity and was fea­tured in a re­cent ES­PN seg­ment about how his pho­to­graph­ic memory has made him an in­dis­pens­able weapon on the side­lines. That day, Mc­Fad­den was headed to coach his first youth foot­ball prac­tice in months””an activ­ity he show­cased in a mem­or­able cam­paign spot made by the same firm that pro­duced Iowa Sen­ate can­did­ate Joni Ernst’s fam­ous “hog cas­tra­tion” ad. The ad con­cludes with Mc­Fad­den tak­ing a hit in the groin, pain­fully re­cit­ing that he sponsored the mes­sage.

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On the cam­paign trail, Mc­Fad­den is prone to com­pare his cam­paign to his ex­ploits on the grid­iron. “As a coach, I can tell you as Amer­ic­ans, we’re los­ing right now. And there’s a bet­ter way for­ward,” he told the loc­al Fox af­fil­i­ate dur­ing an early-morn­ing in­ter­view at the fair.

But, to ex­tend the foot­ball meta­phor, Mc­Fad­den’s cam­paign has been re­luct­ant to blitz Franken, des­pite his vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. Mc­Fad­den’s second ad was a hu­mor­ous spot por­tray­ing a Franken lookalike back­ing a boat in­to a lake be­cause he’s veer­ing too far to the left. That’s as hard-hit­ting as the race has got­ten. Six years ago at this time, the Min­nesota air­waves were blanketed with nasty GOP com­mer­cials at­tack­ing Franken as a crude en­ter­tain­er, ar­guing that he lacked the tem­pera­ment to be a sen­at­or. This year, Mc­Fad­den was mostly fo­cused on is­sues while avoid­ing any per­son­al at­tacks on the sen­at­or.

“I think in Min­nesota, there’s a reas­on we’re known for be­ing Min­nesota nice. I think people are really tired of polit­ics as usu­al, the neg­at­iv­ity in cam­paigns. That’s the reas­on you’ve seen the types of cam­paigns be­ing run here,” Mc­Fad­den said. “We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to talk about what I want to talk about. We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue about talk­ing about health care, edu­ca­tion, en­ergy, min­ing.”

His toughest jibe against Franken? “Al Franken had a back­ground in en­ter­tain­ment. I don’t think that’s a back­ground that’s al­lowed him to be ef­fect­ive,” Mc­Fad­den said. “I think he has no idea how the eco­nomy works. He’s voted part and par­cel with the pres­id­ent, and has over­seen the slow­est re­bound from a re­ces­sion in the his­tory of the United States.”

Mc­Fad­den’s biggest polit­ic­al ac­com­plish­ment was win­ning the state party en­dorse­ment at its con­ven­tion in May, an event that’s dom­in­ated by hard-line con­ser­vat­ives. At the out­set of his cam­paign, Mc­Fad­den wasn’t even plan­ning to con­test the con­ven­tion en­dorse­ment pro­cess, giv­en that he avoids po­lar­iz­ing so­cial is­sues such as gay mar­riage (Min­nesota voters re­jec­ted a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment ban­ning gay mar­riage in 2012; the state Le­gis­lature leg­al­ized it in 2013) and has cri­ti­cized the gov­ern­ment shut­down as “dra­coni­an.” But thanks to key back­ing from former Sen. Cole­man and late sup­port from Rep. Michele Bach­mann, along with weak Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion, Mc­Fad­den se­cured a late-night party en­dorse­ment, giv­ing him no op­pos­i­tion in the primary.

ROLE RE­VERSAL

In 1990, Car­leton Col­lege pro­fess­or Paul Well­stone, run­ning a long-shot cam­paign for the Sen­ate in Min­nesota, aired a mem­or­able ad show­ing him trav­el­ing across the state in search of his chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. Well­stone pulled off the up­set and be­came a pro­gress­ive icon to lib­er­al Min­nesotans be­fore his death in 2002. Nearly a quarter-cen­tury later, Franken, who touts him­self as an heir to the Well­stone leg­acy, is fa­cing many of the same chal­lenges his hero ex­ploited. This time, it’s Franken who is look­ing to lay low in the run-up to his reelec­tion, as he faces a first-time polit­ic­al can­did­ate try­ing to cap­it­al­ize on the anti-Wash­ing­ton mood in the coun­try.

There’s an eer­ie sim­il­ar­ity to the 1990 race when Paul Well­stone got elec­ted. Boschwitz ran ads with all these loc­al themes, tout­ing that he’s a prob­lem-solv­er. That’s ex­actly what Franken is do­ing,” Schi­er said.

And so far, the lay-low strategy seems to be work­ing.

The biggest con­front­a­tion of the cam­paign to date came at the 6 a.m. open­ing of the fair, when Mc­Fad­den and Franken stood near each oth­er, greet­ing early at­tendees at the main en­trance. Mc­Fad­den walked up to Franken, with loc­al tele­vi­sion cam­er­as rolling, in­tro­duced him­self, and chal­lenged the sen­at­or to a series of six de­bates throughout the state. Franken de­murred. That be­came Mc­Fad­den’s run­ning theme at the fair: Franken is avoid­ing the is­sues. Franken’s cam­paign later offered a coun­ter­pro­pos­al: three de­bates in Oc­to­ber.

The key ques­tion is wheth­er Franken can ef­fect­ively run out the clock, delay­ing the start of the cam­paign long enough un­til his lead is se­cure. One of Mc­Fad­den’s reg­u­lar cri­ti­cisms of Franken is that he’s much less ac­cess­ible than the state’s seni­or sen­at­or, Demo­crat Amy Klobuchar. The state fair, last­ing 12 days un­til Labor Day, tra­di­tion­ally is the kick­off to cam­paign sea­son in Min­nesota, but Franken would love to wait longer. Franken ended his heated 2008 cam­paign with weak ap­prov­al rat­ings and has im­proved his stand­ing primar­ily by avoid­ing the press and any res­ult­ing neg­at­ive at­ten­tion.

“Since he’s been elec­ted, I haven’t seen him much in per­son. The last time, I think, was at the state fair sev­er­al years ago,” said Mar­cia Meredith, a nurse prac­ti­tion­er from St. Paul, who counts her­self as a down-the-line Demo­crat­ic sup­port­er. “But I’m vot­ing for him in Novem­ber.”

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THE STAKES

As Re­pub­lic­ans aim to take con­trol of the Sen­ate, with a bevy of red-state Demo­crats look­ing to be in trouble, Min­nesota’s Sen­ate race isn’t at the top of the GOP’s takeover list. But it heads the list of “sleep­er” races””one of a hand­ful of con­tests that have the po­ten­tial to break late if the polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment is as tox­ic for Demo­crats as some na­tion­al polls sug­gest. Un­like oth­er Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors re­spond­ing to new­found chal­lenges by en­ga­ging their op­pos­i­tion early, Franken is run­ning an un­usu­ally low-key race, giv­ing off the vibe that there’s noth­ing to see here. After I tweeted my Min­nesota travel plans, the Demo­crat­ic Sen­at­ori­al Cam­paign Com­mit­tee’s com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or, Matt Canter, mocked the sug­ges­tion that this was a po­ten­tially com­pet­it­ive race.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5201) }}

In real­ity, polls from both parties show Franken with only a tenu­ous ad­vant­age over his chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an busi­ness­man Mike Mc­Fad­den. Pres­id­ent Obama’s job-ap­prov­al num­bers are weak in Min­nesota, with a Suf­folk Uni­versity poll con­duc­ted in April re­veal­ing a 43 per­cent rat­ing. The same sur­vey shows Franken polling at 44 per­cent against Mc­Fad­den, with his net fa­vor­ab­il­ity at 46 per­cent/41 per­cent. (A robo-poll, con­duc­ted this week by Sur­vey­USA, showed Franken up 51 per­cent to 42 per­cent, with a 56 per­cent ap­prov­al rat­ing.) But un­like oth­er Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors in swing states, Franken hasn’t done any­thing, even sym­bol­ic­ally, to dis­tance him­self from the un­pop­u­lar pres­id­ent. A Na­tion­al Journ­al vote ana­lys­is con­duc­ted this month showed that, in the past two years, Franken has cast only two votes against party lead­er­ship out of 161””a 99 per­cent re­cord that beats Sen. Eliza­beth War­ren.

“In his pri­or ca­reer, he was known for ex­plos­ive sar­casm. I think they’re keep­ing him un­der wraps for good reas­on.”

Giv­en that po­ten­tial bag­gage, Franken’s cam­paign has been air­ing a series of ad­vert­ise­ments fea­tur­ing the le­gis­la­tion he’s in­tro­duced in the Sen­ate, in­clud­ing bills crack­ing down on tain­ted food, a work­force-train­ing bill, and a cred­it-rat­ing amend­ment. Un­like some oth­er tar­geted Demo­crat­ic in­cum­bents””who have ag­gress­ively at­tacked their op­pos­i­tion early and eagerly sought to con­trast their re­cord with the battered GOP brand””Franken has fo­cused on loc­al ac­com­plish­ments, avoid­ing the na­tion­al is­sues that are driv­ing the de­bate in Wash­ing­ton. In our short time to­geth­er, Franken nev­er men­tioned Mc­Fad­den by name, barely ac­know­ledging there was a cam­paign go­ing on.

“The Franken cam­paign strategy is, they’ve got a lot of money, lot of in­fra­struc­ture, and that there’s a down­side to too much ex­pos­ure,” said Car­leton Col­lege polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Steven Schi­er. “In his pri­or ca­reer, he was known for ex­plos­ive sar­casm. I think they’re keep­ing him un­der wraps for good reas­on. The hos­til­ity to Wash­ing­ton is as high in Min­nesota as it is any­where.”

Des­pite the op­por­tun­ity, Re­pub­lic­ans are hardly bullish about their chances. Re­pub­lic­an strategists in Min­nesota view Franken as thin-skinned and prone to make mis­takes un­der pres­sure. But those not in­volved with the cam­paign ex­pressed con­cern that Mc­Fad­den is be­ing too “Min­nesota nice,” and that out­side groups are too fo­cused on the many oth­er com­pet­it­ive races, ig­nor­ing the po­ten­tial op­por­tun­ity against Franken. Out­side groups have spent less than $100,000 against Franken, a pit­tance com­pared with the mil­lions they’ve shelled out against vul­ner­able Demo­crat­ic sen­at­ors such as Kay Hagan in North Car­o­lina and Mark Ud­all in Col­or­ado. Free­dom Part­ners, a Koch broth­ers-af­fil­i­ated group, is spend­ing $3.6 mil­lion in Demo­crat­ic-friendly Ore­gon in an at­tempt to un­seat Sen. Jeff Merkley, but the con­ser­vat­ive bank­rollers have steered clear of Min­nesota so far. The U.S. Cham­ber of Com­merce en­dorsed Mc­Fad­den this month, but hasn’t (yet) pledged to air ad­vert­ise­ments on his be­half.

“[Out­side groups] want to see polling that shows the race close be­fore they start spend­ing,” said one vet­er­an Min­nesota GOP strategist. “And that won’t hap­pen un­til they start spend­ing money against Franken. It’s a mat­ter of who blinks first.”

THE OPPONENT

Mc­Fad­den, an in­vest­ment banker with the Min­nesota firm Laz­ard Middle Mar­ket, is a new­comer to polit­ics. The 49-year-old busi­ness­man grew up in Neb­raska, moved to Min­nesota to play col­lege foot­ball at the Uni­versity of St. Thomas, and went to law school at Geor­getown Uni­versity be­fore re­turn­ing to his ad­op­ted state in 1993. He’s run­ning as a prag­mat­ic busi­ness lead­er in the mold of neigh­bor­ing Wis­con­sin Sen. Ron John­son, fo­cus­ing on the eco­nomy, Franken’s vote for the Af­ford­able Care Act, the sen­at­or’s op­pos­i­tion to the Key­stone XL pipeline, and ex­pan­ded en­ergy pro­duc­tion as the center­pieces of his cam­paign.

Mc­Fad­den has dabbled in polit­ics since his first vote in 1984 for Ron­ald Re­agan, but he hasn’t been dir­ectly in­volved in fed­er­al cam­paigns, out­side of sev­er­al small dona­tions over the past dec­ade. Re­cords show he donated $2,000 to Mitt Rom­ney’s cam­paign in Au­gust 2012, $1,000 to the Na­tion­al Re­pub­lic­an Sen­at­ori­al Com­mit­tee that same year, and $1,500 to Norm Cole­man in 2008, but that was the ex­tent of his fed­er­al polit­ic­al con­tri­bu­tions be­fore launch­ing his own cam­paign. Mc­Fad­den por­trays him­self as a polit­ic­al out­sider and be­moans the “pro­fes­sion­al class of politi­cians” in Con­gress.

“In 2012, I was so de­pressed after the elec­tion””we lost the pres­id­ency, we lost the state House and Sen­ate, and the party was decim­ated in Min­nesota. One of my ob­ser­va­tions was that we’d cre­ated this pro­fes­sion­al class of politi­cian in this coun­try,” Mc­Fad­den said. “I’m a coach, I’m a busi­ness­man, have nev­er been a politi­cian. And I’m proud of it.”

Walk in­to Mc­Fad­den’s of­fice park headquar­ters in sub­urb­an Eagan, and you can’t miss his pas­sion for foot­ball. As I ar­rived, a cam­paign staffer was toss­ing around a pig­skin to him­self in­side the spa­cious of­fice. In­spir­a­tion­al quotes from famed NFL coaches Vince Lom­bardi (“Com­mit to ex­cel­lence every day”) and, yes, Jim Har­baugh (“En­thu­si­asm un­known to man­kind”) are plastered on the bare walls in both the work­space and the can­did­ate’s own of­fice. Mc­Fad­den’s old­est son, Con­or, played foot­ball at Stan­ford Uni­versity and was fea­tured in a re­cent ES­PN seg­ment about how his pho­to­graph­ic memory has made him an in­dis­pens­able weapon on the side­lines. That day, Mc­Fad­den was headed to coach his first youth foot­ball prac­tice in months””an activ­ity he show­cased in a mem­or­able cam­paign spot made by the same firm that pro­duced Iowa Sen­ate can­did­ate Joni Ernst’s fam­ous “hog cas­tra­tion” ad. The ad con­cludes with Mc­Fad­den tak­ing a hit in the groin, pain­fully re­cit­ing that he sponsored the mes­sage.

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On the cam­paign trail, Mc­Fad­den is prone to com­pare his cam­paign to his ex­ploits on the grid­iron. “As a coach, I can tell you as Amer­ic­ans, we’re los­ing right now. And there’s a bet­ter way for­ward,” he told the loc­al Fox af­fil­i­ate dur­ing an early-morn­ing in­ter­view at the fair.

But, to ex­tend the foot­ball meta­phor, Mc­Fad­den’s cam­paign has been re­luct­ant to blitz Franken, des­pite his vul­ner­ab­il­it­ies. Mc­Fad­den’s second ad was a hu­mor­ous spot por­tray­ing a Franken lookalike back­ing a boat in­to a lake be­cause he’s veer­ing too far to the left. That’s as hard-hit­ting as the race has got­ten. Six years ago at this time, the Min­nesota air­waves were blanketed with nasty GOP com­mer­cials at­tack­ing Franken as a crude en­ter­tain­er, ar­guing that he lacked the tem­pera­ment to be a sen­at­or. This year, Mc­Fad­den was mostly fo­cused on is­sues while avoid­ing any per­son­al at­tacks on the sen­at­or.

“I think in Min­nesota, there’s a reas­on we’re known for be­ing Min­nesota nice. I think people are really tired of polit­ics as usu­al, the neg­at­iv­ity in cam­paigns. That’s the reas­on you’ve seen the types of cam­paigns be­ing run here,” Mc­Fad­den said. “We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue to talk about what I want to talk about. We’re go­ing to con­tin­ue about talk­ing about health care, edu­ca­tion, en­ergy, min­ing.”

His toughest jibe against Franken? “Al Franken had a back­ground in en­ter­tain­ment. I don’t think that’s a back­ground that’s al­lowed him to be ef­fect­ive,” Mc­Fad­den said. “I think he has no idea how the eco­nomy works. He’s voted part and par­cel with the pres­id­ent, and has over­seen the slow­est re­bound from a re­ces­sion in the his­tory of the United States.”

Mc­Fad­den’s biggest polit­ic­al ac­com­plish­ment was win­ning the state party en­dorse­ment at its con­ven­tion in May, an event that’s dom­in­ated by hard-line con­ser­vat­ives. At the out­set of his cam­paign, Mc­Fad­den wasn’t even plan­ning to con­test the con­ven­tion en­dorse­ment pro­cess, giv­en that he avoids po­lar­iz­ing so­cial is­sues such as gay mar­riage (Min­nesota voters re­jec­ted a con­sti­tu­tion­al amend­ment ban­ning gay mar­riage in 2012; the state Le­gis­lature leg­al­ized it in 2013) and has cri­ti­cized the gov­ern­ment shut­down as “dra­coni­an.” But thanks to key back­ing from former Sen. Cole­man and late sup­port from Rep. Michele Bach­mann, along with weak Re­pub­lic­an op­pos­i­tion, Mc­Fad­den se­cured a late-night party en­dorse­ment, giv­ing him no op­pos­i­tion in the primary.

ROLE REVERSAL

In 1990, Car­leton Col­lege pro­fess­or Paul Well­stone, run­ning a long-shot cam­paign for the Sen­ate in Min­nesota, aired a mem­or­able ad show­ing him trav­el­ing across the state in search of his chal­lenger, Re­pub­lic­an Sen. Rudy Boschwitz. Well­stone pulled off the up­set and be­came a pro­gress­ive icon to lib­er­al Min­nesotans be­fore his death in 2002. Nearly a quarter-cen­tury later, Franken, who touts him­self as an heir to the Well­stone leg­acy, is fa­cing many of the same chal­lenges his hero ex­ploited. This time, it’s Franken who is look­ing to lay low in the run-up to his reelec­tion, as he faces a first-time polit­ic­al can­did­ate try­ing to cap­it­al­ize on the anti-Wash­ing­ton mood in the coun­try.

There’s an eer­ie sim­il­ar­ity to the 1990 race when Paul Well­stone got elec­ted. Boschwitz ran ads with all these loc­al themes, tout­ing that he’s a prob­lem-solv­er. That’s ex­actly what Franken is do­ing,” Schi­er said.

And so far, the lay-low strategy seems to be work­ing.

The biggest con­front­a­tion of the cam­paign to date came at the 6 a.m. open­ing of the fair, when Mc­Fad­den and Franken stood near each oth­er, greet­ing early at­tendees at the main en­trance. Mc­Fad­den walked up to Franken, with loc­al tele­vi­sion cam­er­as rolling, in­tro­duced him­self, and chal­lenged the sen­at­or to a series of six de­bates throughout the state. Franken de­murred. That be­came Mc­Fad­den’s run­ning theme at the fair: Franken is avoid­ing the is­sues. Franken’s cam­paign later offered a coun­ter­pro­pos­al: three de­bates in Oc­to­ber.

The key ques­tion is wheth­er Franken can ef­fect­ively run out the clock, delay­ing the start of the cam­paign long enough un­til his lead is se­cure. One of Mc­Fad­den’s reg­u­lar cri­ti­cisms of Franken is that he’s much less ac­cess­ible than the state’s seni­or sen­at­or, Demo­crat Amy Klobuchar. The state fair, last­ing 12 days un­til Labor Day, tra­di­tion­ally is the kick­off to cam­paign sea­son in Min­nesota, but Franken would love to wait longer. Franken ended his heated 2008 cam­paign with weak ap­prov­al rat­ings and has im­proved his stand­ing primar­ily by avoid­ing the press and any res­ult­ing neg­at­ive at­ten­tion.

“Since he’s been elec­ted, I haven’t seen him much in per­son. The last time, I think, was at the state fair sev­er­al years ago,” said Mar­cia Meredith, a nurse prac­ti­tion­er from St. Paul, who counts her­self as a down-the-line Demo­crat­ic sup­port­er. “But I’m vot­ing for him in Novem­ber.”

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