What Is Al Franken So Afraid Of?

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

ST. PAUL, Minn.—I flew to Minnesota with high hopes of talking with Senator 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 Senator 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.

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.

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 Senator Elizabeth Warren.

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 Senator 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.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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