Is Al Franken Laughing All the Way to a Senate Seat?

by Stuart Rothenberg July 30, 2007 · 12:05 AM EDT

Often, when comedian-turned-candidate Al Franken’s name comes up these days, Republicans just snicker. Then they say that despite all the national attention paid to his candidacy and notwithstanding his strong early fundraising, Franken can’t beat Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.).

Coleman, after all, is a polished political veteran and rising star who beat liberal icon Walter Mondale (D) five years ago. He is a high-energy political animal who understands issues and voters, insist his friends, and he isn’t likely to lose to a far-left celebrity who sometimes tosses around obscenities as if they were socially acceptable.

Well, I don’t necessarily expect Franken to defeat Coleman next year, but I’m not so sure I would dismiss the former “Saturday Night Live” writer/performer that quickly.

To face Coleman, Franken must first win the Democratic nomination. His chief competitor appears to be Mike Ciresi, 61, a wealthy attorney who has flirted with a number of races and who lost the 2000 Senate primary.

Ciresi has been endorsed by Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), as well as a handful of state legislators and current and former officeholders (Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman, ex-state Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe and ex-St. Paul Mayor George Latimer).

Franken, in contrast, has been endorsed by 26 state legislators, state Auditor Rebecca Otto and two unions. He is the darling of the left and raised more than $1.9 million in the past quarter, ending June with nearly $2 million banked.

Let’s assume for a moment that Franken becomes the nominee. Can he beat Coleman?

Remember, the question is not whether he is the best candidate to take on the GOP incumbent. Few people, including few Democratic strategists and operatives, think Franken is an ideal challenger. The question is whether he can win, or, as some insist, is he so flawed, so far left, so foulmouthed that he can’t possibly win?

I don’t know if Franken will win, but I definitely think he can win — under the right circumstances. I offer five exhibits:

Exhibit No. 1 is Jesse Ventura, the wrestler/ actor-turned-candidate who was elected governor of Minnesota. Yes, Ventura won with only 37 percent of the vote, but that was as the nominee of the Reform Party, which had no organization and few loyal adherents. The fact that 37 percent of Minnesotans would support someone with such a bizarre background and with such limited government experience suggests that Franken’s background is not disqualifying.

Exhibit No. 2 is the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), a rather far-left college professor with no state or national reputation who upset a relatively uncontroversial incumbent, Rudy Boschwitz (R), by running a quirky, populist campaign. Minnesota voters have moved right since the state’s days of unfettered liberalism in the 1950s and 1960s, but Wellstone’s re-election in 1996 and Democrat Mark Dayton’s Senate win four years later — to say nothing of narrow wins in the state by Al Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004 — show that liberals certainly can still win statewide.

Exhibit No. 3 is California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I first heard his name mentioned in 2003, I assumed it was a joke. The guy was an actor who spoke English with a heavy accent, had made an early career out of being a bodybuilder (which in most circles probably was taken to mean that he wasn’t too bright) and was a Republican in a state that was moving dramatically to the left. Yet this easily caricatured celebrity with no campaign experience and relatively little detailed knowledge of government easily won a multicandidate special election.

Exhibit No. 4 is freshman Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.). Yarmuth was the publisher of an “alternative” newspaper in Louisville, Ky., the kind that was supposed to give opponent Anne Northup (R) all of the ammunition she would need to destroy her opponent and make the election a referendum on his liberalism. That didn’t happen.

Exhibit No. 5 is Jim Talent (R), the former Missouri Senator who seemed to fit his state well and was figured to win re-election in 2006. Talent was conservative but had a moderate style, and the combination of the state’s partisan bent, his St. Louis base and the rural part of the state’s general conservatism should have carried him to victory. Instead, he couldn’t overcome the anti-Bush, anti-Republican, pro-change wave that overwhelmed many GOPers.

We could well witness the same kind of anti-Republican wave nationally next year, and if that happens, the Democratic surge could be particularly strong in Minnesota.

But can Franken show that he’s serious enough to win? Can he restrain his instincts to entertain or shock? Can he clean up his language? Can he follow direction? Can he appear likeable? Can he overcome his celebrity image to appeal to outstate Minnesota?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, and I’m not sure we’ll know the answers until much later in the cycle, when he has had time to learn his role as a candidate and find a comfortable style. Yes, Franken could fail as a candidate. But I, for one, think it’s too early to know how he will be on the stump and in live interviews a year from now.

Democrats once hoped to face Ronald Reagan for the White House in 1980. They got their wish and eventually were sorry about it. Politics, you see, is a funny, unpredictable business, which is why I’m not writing off Al Franken just yet.