No Joke: Al Franken for President?

After years of shunning the spotlight in the Senate, Minnesota’s junior senator is in the limelight—and would be a formidable candidate for the Democrats.

Sen. Al Franken
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Josh Kraushaar
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Josh Kraushaar
Feb. 5, 2017, 6 a.m.

Al Franken isn’t a punch line in the Sen­ate any­more. He’s emerged as one of the Demo­crats’ most ag­gress­ive and ef­fect­ive ques­tion­ers of Pres­id­ent Trump’s Cab­in­et nom­in­ees. He’s gen­er­ated nu­mer­ous made-for-TV clips as one of the few Demo­crats will­ing to go full-bore against his party’s top tar­gets—Jeff Ses­sions, Tom Price, and Betsy De­Vos. He’s fi­nally show­ing some per­son­al­ity in the Sen­ate, punc­tu­ated by his laugh-out-loud ex­change with En­ergy Sec­ret­ary-des­ig­nate Rick Perry. And he’ll be one of nine Demo­crats on the Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee ques­tion­ing Trump’s Su­preme Court nom­in­ee, Neil Gor­such. This is Al Franken’s mo­ment in the spot­light, and if he chooses, he could par­lay his good for­tune in­to a bid for the pres­id­ency in 2020.

To be sure, Franken, 65, may not be the Demo­crats’ strongest can­did­ate in the gen­er­al elec­tion. His deeply lib­er­al polit­ics and long-stand­ing dis­missive­ness of Re­pub­lic­ans turn off many voters in the middle. But with Demo­crats look­ing for strident op­pos­i­tion to Trump in the early days of his pres­id­ency, they’re prob­ably not go­ing to be in a prag­mat­ic mood in the primar­ies. So far, much of the lib­er­al ex­cite­ment has centered around Sens. Eliza­beth War­ren and Bernie Sanders, but they will be 71 and 79, re­spect­ively, dur­ing the gen­er­al elec­tion. Neither has shown any abil­ity to win sup­port out­side the most pro­gress­ive pre­cincts. Franken, at least, can point to a re­cord of elect­ab­il­ity with groups that Demo­crats will need to win over.

I ex­per­i­enced Franken’s polit­ic­al po­ten­tial firsthand after trav­el­ing to Min­nesota to cov­er his reelec­tion bid in 2014. That year, Re­pub­lic­ans swept nearly every com­pet­it­ive Sen­ate race—even giv­ing Sen. Mark Warner a run for his money in Vir­gin­ia. But Franken com­fort­ably pre­vailed against a well-fun­ded GOP busi­ness­man, one of the few tar­geted Demo­crats to run against the tide. He ac­com­plished that by win­ning the rur­al, work­ing-class Iron Range, an area that swung dra­mat­ic­ally to Trump last Novem­ber. Like Trump, he cham­pioned buy-Amer­ic­an le­gis­la­tion for iron and steel com­pan­ies, and helped se­cure new trade pro­tec­tions and tar­iffs against Chinese steel. A Franken ad­viser told Na­tion­al Journ­al he’s likely to find “some com­mon ground” with Trump on trade is­sues. He’s akin to Sen. Sher­rod Brown of Ohio, with more star power to ex­cite the mil­len­ni­als and non­whites who make up so much of the Demo­crat­ic Party’s base.

Franken’s biggest vul­ner­ab­il­ity was that he was bet­ter known for his com­ic turns on Sat­urday Night Live than for his le­gis­lat­ive re­cord. But he’s no or­din­ary comedi­an: He went to the pres­ti­gi­ous Blake School in Min­nesota and gradu­ated from Har­vard. And in the age of Trump, be­ing a tele­vi­sion celebrity isn’t nearly the vul­ner­ab­il­ity that it once seemed. His hand­lers took great pains to avoid the me­dia dur­ing his first term, avoid­ing in­ter­views with Wash­ing­ton-based re­port­ers. But these days, Franken is act­ing a lot more au­then­tic­ally, with his propensity to light­en the mood dur­ing tense hear­ings as com­mon as his hair-trig­ger tem­per.

Franken is com­ing out with a mem­oir this year on Me­mori­al Day, an­oth­er sign he’ll be get­ting more at­ten­tion in the months to come. A Franken spokes­man said the sen­at­or re­mains fo­cused on Min­nesota, and brushed off any spec­u­la­tion about a fu­ture pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. But with many Demo­crats ar­guing that they need their own fam­ous face to chal­lenge Trump, Franken fits the bill as well as any­one.


1. GOP Rep. Dave Brat of Vir­gin­ia is in the news for mak­ing a con­tro­ver­sial com­ment about the grow­ing anti-Trump op­pos­i­tion in his sub­urb­an Rich­mond dis­trict. “Since Obama­care and these is­sues have come up, the wo­men are in my grill no mat­ter where I go,” Brat said last Sat­urday at a meet­ing, caught on video. His in­sens­it­ive lan­guage to­wards wo­men has drawn na­tion­al at­ten­tion. But equally re­veal­ing is that Brat is feel­ing polit­ic­al pres­sure in what’s long been a safely Re­pub­lic­an House seat.

Brat, fam­ous for his shock­ing primary up­set of former House Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor, is one of the dozens of Re­pub­lic­ans run­ning in GOP-friendly sub­urb­an dis­tricts where the vote swung away from Trump in last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Trump car­ried the Rich­mond-area dis­trict with 51 per­cent of the vote, 5 points down from Mitt Rom­ney’s per­form­ance four years earli­er. Many of the de­fect­ors didn’t vote Demo­crat­ic; they in­stead went for third-party can­did­ates. Brat won 58 per­cent of the vote against an un­der­fun­ded op­pon­ent.

This is the type of seat that should still be solidly Re­pub­lic­an, even with Trump’s slip­page. But Trump is such a wild card as pres­id­ent—and as I wrote this week, he could re­align sub­urb­an voters away from the GOP—that Brat isn’t a lock for reelec­tion. If he con­tin­ues to feel some pres­sure and makes rhet­or­ic­al flubs, it’s pre­cisely the type of seat that could flip in a Demo­crat­ic wave.

2. The re­search-and-ana­lyt­ics firm Ech­el­on In­sights re­leased a polit­ic­al break­down of the 207 me­dia mar­kets in the coun­try in last year’s pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. The data­base is filled with fas­cin­at­ing nug­gets. Among them: a) The most pro-Trump me­dia mar­ket with a foot­ball team was Nashville; b) the most pro-Trump me­dia mar­ket with a base­ball team was Cin­cin­nati; c) the me­dia mar­ket with the biggest swing to­wards Trump was Zanes­ville, Ohio; d) Clev­e­land was the ma­jor mar­ket with the greatest swing to­wards Trump; e) San Fran­cisco was the only ma­jor me­dia mar­ket more pro-Hil­lary Clin­ton than Wash­ing­ton D.C.; and f) the biggest mar­kets swinging away from Trump were Salt Lake City, San Diego, Hou­s­ton, Aus­tin, Idaho Falls, and Yuma, Ari­zona.

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