AGAINST THE GRAIN

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
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.

TRAIL MIX:

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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