What Is Al Franken So Afraid Of?

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.

"[Outside groups] want to see polling that shows the race close before they start spending," said one veteran Minnesota GOP strategist. "And that won't happen until they start spending money against Franken. It's a matter of who blinks first."

McFadden, an investment banker with the Minnesota firm Lazard Middle Market, is a newcomer to politics. The 49-year-old businessman grew up in Nebraska, moved to Minnesota to play college football at the University of St. Thomas, and went to law school at Georgetown University before returning to his adopted state in 1993. He's running as a pragmatic business leader in the mold of neighboring Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, focusing on the economy, Franken's vote for the Affordable Care Act, the senator's opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and expanded energy production as the centerpieces of his campaign.

McFadden has dabbled in politics since his first vote in 1984 for Ronald Reagan, but he hasn't been directly involved in federal campaigns, outside of several small donations over the past decade. Records show he donated $2,000 to Mitt Romney's campaign in August 2012, $1,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee that same year, and $1,500 to Norm Coleman in 2008, but that was the extent of his federal political contributions before launching his own campaign. McFadden portrays himself as a political outsider and bemoans the "professional class of politicians" in Congress.

"In 2012, I was so depressed after the election—we lost the presidency, we lost the state House and Senate, and the party was decimated in Minnesota. One of my observations was that we'd created this professional class of politician in this country," McFadden said. "I'm a coach, I'm a businessman, have never been a politician. And I'm proud of it."

Walk into McFadden's office park headquarters in suburban Eagan, and you can't miss his passion for football. As I arrived, a campaign staffer was tossing around a pigskin to himself inside the spacious office. Inspirational quotes from famed NFL coaches Vince Lombardi ("Commit to excellence every day") and, yes, Jim Harbaugh ("Enthusiasm unknown to mankind") are plastered on the bare walls in both the workspace and the candidate's own office. McFadden's oldest son, Conor, played football at Stanford University and was featured in a recent ESPN segment about how his photographic memory has made him an indispensable weapon on the sidelines. That day, McFadden was headed to coach his first youth football practice in months—an activity he showcased in a memorable campaign spot made by the same firm that produced Iowa Senate candidate Joni Ernst's famous "hog castration" ad. The ad concludes with McFadden taking a hit in the groin, painfully reciting that he sponsored the message.

On the campaign trail, McFadden is prone to compare his campaign to his exploits on the gridiron. "As a coach, I can tell you as Americans, we're losing right now. And there's a better way forward," he told the local Fox affiliate during an early-morning interview at the fair.

But, to extend the football metaphor, McFadden's campaign has been reluctant to blitz Franken, despite his vulnerabilities. McFadden's second ad was a humorous spot portraying a Franken lookalike backing a boat into a lake because he's veering too far to the left. That's as hard-hitting as the race has gotten. Six years ago at this time, the Minnesota airwaves were blanketed with nasty GOP commercials attacking Franken as a crude entertainer, arguing that he lacked the temperament to be a senator. This year, McFadden was mostly focused on issues while avoiding any personal attacks on the senator.

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Josh Kraushaar is the political editor for National Journal.

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