WASHINGTON- On paper, this Senate race should be a barnburner.
After all, Democrat Al Franken won the 2008 election by only 312 votes after that long recount. And many recent polls show Franken with less than 50 percent support from voters, which is often a sign that a tough re-election is ahead. President Obama is unpopular in Minnesota, and there’s the so-called six year itch when voters often turn on the party that controls the White House.
That’s probably why Minnesota Republican Party chair Keith Downey kept bringing up Obama’s name in a recent interview about Franken.
“Al Franken has just not distinguished himself at all other than voting 100 percent of the time with President Obama and being probably one of, if not the biggest cheerleaders for Obamacare,” Downey said.
But in Washington, where a whole industry watches elections, Franken’s race is barely on the national radar.
“Fundamentally, Minnesota has been behaving like a very blue state lately so the bar’s a little bit higher for a Republican candidate there,” Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor of the Cook Political Report said.
Franken has been an aggressive fundraiser and has a substantial financial edge over the endorsed Republican candidate, Mike McFadden. He’s also kept his head down in the Senate and focused on policy and not the political satire he was once known for. That’s meant Republicans haven’t found a good issue to hit Franken on other than that he’s a Democrat who supports the party’s priorities, said Duffy.
“There isn’t anything that’s unique to Franken that gives Republicans a great opening,” she said.
Another election forecaster who believes Franken is safe for now is Stuart Rothenberg, editor and publisher of the Rothenberg Political Report.
When Rothenberg started in his line of work 30 years ago, politicians who polled above 50 percent were considered safe and those under 50 percent were seen as vulnerable. But now the public is cynical and campaigns are more sophisticated, said Rothenberg, and those old measures hold less relevance today.
“He doesn’t have terrible numbers. Believe me, there are lots of incumbent U.S. senators seeking re-election who wish that on early ballot tests they were sitting on 48, 49 percent of the vote,” Rothenberg said.
Moreover, Rothenberg noted that Republicans have plenty of opportunities to win Senate seats on more favorable ground in states where voters picked Republican Mitt Romney over Obama just two years ago.
“When we look at all the other races that are going to affect control of the Senate — Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska, Kentucky — this one is just far down the list,” he said.
One sign that many national Republicans implicitly buy Rothenberg and Duffy’s analysis is the lack of interest in the race so far from deep-pocketed conservative outside groups. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates just $63,000 has been spent by such groups so far in the Minnesota Senate race.
Both Rothenberg and Duffy emphasized that campaigns can shift quickly and it’s certainly possible Franken could lose. Duffy said that just because she thinks Franken is well-positioned doesn’t mean he won’t have to work hard to retain his seat. She noted that the public has become increasingly politically polarized such that there are few true swing voters left.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if this ended up being a close race,” said Duffy. “McFadden certainly has work to do to get better known but simply hearing that he’s a Republican is good enough for some voters.”
What that means is that Franken — as well as Democrats across the country — are concentrating their efforts on voter turnout this fall. Minnesota DFL Party Chair Ken Martin said he’s well aware of the need to keep Democrats energized and make sure they go to the polls on Election Day.
“We always knew that these races would be close in Minnesota,” he said. “I remind folks who aren’t from here that we have two guys on the top of ticket in Sen. Al Franken and Gov. Mark Dayton who won their respective elections by recount.”
So if Duffy, Rothenberg and other political forecasters think Franken is relatively secure for now, then what would it take for him to lose?
Duffy said Democrats know they’re facing a political storm but some candidates, including Franken, have sturdier shelters than others.
“I think right now we’re looking at a Category 1 or 2 hurricane across the country and I think you’re going to need a 4 or a 5 to take Franken out at this point,” said Duffy.