If this were a normal election year, Norm Coleman probably wouldn't have much trouble winning a second term representing Minnesota in the U.S. Senate. Granted, Coleman is a Republican, and Minnesota tends to be a Democratic state. But both classifications are deceptive.
A former popular mayor of St. Paul, Coleman was a Democrat before he switched parties in 1996, and he remains a fairly moderate Republican today. And for all its history as a bastion of liberalism, Minnesota morphed into a quirky swing state in the mid-1990s, bestowing statewide office to politicians of every stripe, from doctrinaire conservatives (Rod Grams) and old-school liberals (Paul Wellstone) to a flaky, funky former professional wrestler (Jessie Ventura). Al Gore and John Kerry both beat George W. Bush in Minnesota, but by surprisingly slim margins. And in the 2006 midterms, when Democrats were knocking off incumbent Republicans across the country, Minnesotans dared to be different by re-electing their Republican governor, Tim Pawlenty.
Even in this annus horribilis for the GOP, Coleman until a month ago looked like he might coast to victory over his unlikely Democratic challenger, comedian turned author turned liberal radio host turned politician Al Franken. In the most expensive Senate race in the country, Coleman portrayed himself as ordinary, wholesome and dull which he not unreasonably assumed would go over well in a state culture known, with both affection and derision, as Minnesota Nice. For Coleman's purposes, being safe and boring seemed especially wise when contrasted with the loud, funny, inexperienced and sometimes offensive Saturday Night Live alumnus he was running against. Franken is very smart, but he's the opposite of boring. And given his résumé, he couldn't exactly sell himself as safe.
An unapologetic liberal, Franken has devoted much of the campaign to attacking Coleman as a Bush lapdog, especially on Iraq and the economy not a bad strategy against any Republican, given the President's woeful job approval numbers. But Franken and his team spent the summer in a defensive crouch, explaining how, in contemporary comedy, a rape joke is really just a joke, and how swear words are part of the basic vocabulary. As if that weren't enough, the Democrat became embroiled in a "scandal" over having not paid all of his state taxes from his days as an itinerant entertainer. By Labor Day, Coleman looked likely to prevail.
Then two things happened to upset the equilibrium. First, and no doubt most importantly, panic struck Wall Street with a force that was felt all the way to Hennepin Avenue and beyond. In Minnesota as elsewhere, John McCain flailed, Barack Obama soared, and down-ballot Democrats found that their already rosy prospects were rosier than ever. Written off by some over the summer, Franken was suddenly competitive again.
In fact, with two weeks left before Election Day, Franken has nosed ahead of Coleman in the polls. Why? In part it's because Coleman and the GOP, with a relentless advertising campaign aimed at making Franken seem unacceptable as a U.S. Senator, overreached. And Franken, whose campaign until recently was better funded than it was run, pounced. In two TV spots funded by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, images were shown of Franken gesticulating in seemingly barely controlled anger as an ominous, disembodied voice declared that he was "unfit for office." "It isn't just outrage," said the voice. "It's anger."
The problem: the muted video used in the ads was actually taken from a heartwarming, funny story Franken told and acted out about David Wellstone and David's father Paul, who was killed in a plane crash in 2002 and whose Senate seat Coleman now holds. David, on at least one occasion, was sitting nearby, smiling as Franken acted out the part of his father excitedly urging him on during a cross-country race. Handed a gift, Franken's campaign produced an ad of their own showing how his image had been grossly distorted on Coleman's behalf not merely an injustice to Franken, but an insult to Wellstone's memory. "Minnesotans," read the tagline, "deserve better." "At the minimum, it was a very effective ad," Kathryn Pearson, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota, says of the Franken riposte.
Coleman added to his woes by clumsily dodging questions about a report that a longtime donor had been buying suits and other clothing for him without it being reported on Senate disclosure forms. His spokesman's repeated refusal to give a direct yes or no answer to reporters' questions at one particularly tense press conference was so awkward that the video became a popular clip on political blogs. By the time Coleman finally gave a definitive response a few days later "Nobody except my wife or me bought my suits" the damage to his ebbing credibility had been done.
Franken may now have a lead, but the negative tone of the campaigns run by both him and Coleman has left many Minnesotans unhappy with their choices and wishing for an alternative. And, of course, this being Minnesota, there is an alternative. Dean Barkley actually held Coleman's Senate seat briefly after Wellstone died in late 2002, having been appointed to the job by then governor Ventura of feather-boa fame. This year Barkley, with virtually no money, is pulling an average of 18% of the vote in the polls as the candidate from the Independence Party (compared with 40% for Franken and 38% for Coleman). "People who say they're supporting Dean Barkley aren't [actually] supporting Dean Barkley," says Pearson. "They are registering their opposition to the two other candidates. There's a perception among Minnesotans that this race has gotten far too negative."
Not that Barkley, a former lawyer, lobbyist, state government official and bus driver, is entirely lacking in appeal. Says Steven Schier, political science professor at Carleton College: "[Barkley] doesn't have the sizzle. He's not cool. He's overweight, he's in his mid-50s and he's not particularly charismatic. [But] he is smart and articulate."
At the moment, it appears Barkley is pulling a roughly equal percentage of votes from both Coleman and Franken. With two weeks still to go, it's certainly possible that Minnesotans will become just displeased enough with their options to catapult Barkley to victory. In this crazy race, 34% could be enough to win.
But Barkley probably can't get to 34%. Which means either Coleman who recently swore off all negative campaigning will survive the scare of his political life or Al Franken will become the most famous freshman Senator since Barack Obama.