"[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.
"I think in Minnesota, there's a reason we're known for being Minnesota nice. I think people are really tired of politics as usual, the negativity in campaigns. That's the reason you've seen the types of campaigns being run here," McFadden said. "We're going to continue to talk about what I want to talk about. We're going to continue about talking about health care, education, energy, mining."
His toughest jibe against Franken? "Al Franken had a background in entertainment. I don't think that's a background that's allowed him to be effective," McFadden said. "I think he has no idea how the economy works. He's voted part and parcel with the president, and has overseen the slowest rebound from a recession in the history of the United States."
McFadden's biggest political accomplishment was winning the state party endorsement at its convention in May, an event that's dominated by hard-line conservatives. At the outset of his campaign, McFadden wasn't even planning to contest the convention endorsement process, given that he avoids polarizing social issues such as gay marriage (Minnesota voters rejected a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2012; the state Legislature legalized it in 2013) and has criticized the government shutdown as "draconian." But thanks to key backing from former Senator Coleman and late support from Representative Michele Bachmann, along with weak Republican opposition, McFadden secured a late-night party endorsement, giving him no opposition in the primary.
In 1990, Carleton College professor Paul Wellstone, running a long-shot campaign for the Senate in Minnesota, aired a memorable ad showing him traveling across the state in search of his challenger, Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Wellstone pulled off the upset and became a progressive icon to liberal Minnesotans before his death in 2002. Nearly a quarter-century later, Franken, who touts himself as an heir to the Wellstone legacy, is facing many of the same challenges his hero exploited. This time, it's Franken who is looking to lay low in the run-up to his reelection, as he faces a first-time political candidate trying to capitalize on the anti-Washington mood in the country.
"There's an eerie similarity to the 1990 race when Paul Wellstone got elected. Boschwitz ran ads with all these local themes, touting that he's a problem-solver. That's exactly what Franken is doing," Schier said.
And so far, the lay-low strategy seems to be working.
The biggest confrontation of the campaign to date came at the 6 a.m. opening of the fair, when McFadden and Franken stood near each other, greeting early attendees at the main entrance. McFadden walked up to Franken, with local television cameras rolling, introduced himself, and challenged the senator to a series of six debates throughout the state. Franken demurred. That became McFadden's running theme at the fair: Franken is avoiding the issues. Franken's campaign later offered a counterproposal: three debates in October.
The key question is whether Franken can effectively run out the clock, delaying the start of the campaign long enough until his lead is secure. One of McFadden's regular criticisms of Franken is that he's much less accessible than the state's senior senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar. The state fair, lasting 12 days until Labor Day, traditionally is the kickoff to campaign season in Minnesota, but Franken would love to wait longer. Franken ended his heated 2008 campaign with weak approval ratings and has improved his standing primarily by avoiding the press and any resulting negative attention.
"Since he's been elected, I haven't seen him much in person. The last time, I think, was at the state fair several years ago," said Marcia Meredith, a nurse practitioner from St. Paul, who counts herself as a down-the-line Democratic supporter. "But I'm voting for him in November."