Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) shocking decision last week to become a Democrat has upped the ante in the never-ending Minnesota Senate race, providing a strong incentive for Republicans to hold out until every last appeal is exhausted.
With former Sen. Norm Coleman now standing between Democrats and their 60-seat supermajority, the GOP is prepared to back the Republican’s appeal to the federal level if even a shred of doubt emerges in the case currently before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
“This makes it pretty darn important,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, of the race following Specter’s switch. “I expect they will pursue the appeals until they are exhausted, whenever that may be. … I would assume if they were unsuccessful in the Minnesota Supreme Court, there may very well be an appeal to the United States Supreme Court.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are planning a full-scale public pressure campaign to force Coleman to concede should the court affirm a three-judge panel’s ruling that Al Franken is the winner. Democrats have already begun using the race’s elevated importance to raise money, and they’re mounting a fresh campaign to pressure Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R-Minn.) to sign an election certificate once the state Supreme Court rules.
“Pawlenty’s signature is very, very important,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees election disputes. “We expect it to happen after the Supreme Court of Minnesota rules. …. If he refuses to sign, we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”
A key issue for Democrats is whether to seat Franken in the Senate even if Pawlenty withholds his signature from the election certificate. In the wake of the recent flap over seating Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Democrats have set a precedent that to be seated in the Senate, a candidate needs a signed certificate from the sitting governor and secretary of state.
Democrats won’t say whether they’ll try to overcome a possible GOP filibuster by seating Franken if Pawlenty refuses to sign the certificate. But with Specter standing as the 59th Democrat, Democrats need just one GOP defection to break a filibuster in order to win Franken’s seating.
On Thursday, several Republicans said they expected any further appeals by Coleman to be fully supported by their conference, though some acknowledged that the party consensus could be fractured if Coleman continues to lose soundly before the courts.
“If they affirm a lower court’s ruling, then yeah I think it probably gets more difficult in each step of the process to continue to elevate it,” said Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), a member of GOP leadership. He later added that there would be “broad support for whatever decision Norm and his camp make.”
Pawlenty’s role is central to the dispute, and the question of whether Pawlenty must sign the election certificate after the ruling by the state’s highest court is unclear. Coleman’s lawyers say there is a legal gray area as to whether Pawlenty should sign the certificate if there is a federal appeal pending, and the governor – who is eying a run for the White House in 2012 — says that he’ll follow the direction of the courts.
Pawlenty’s handling of the matter could endear him to the GOP base, but it might also infuriate some Minnesota voters if he seeks reelection as governor next year.
Pawlenty, however, may have no choice in the matter. As part of the fight before the state’s high court, where oral arguments are scheduled for June 1, Franken’s team is likely to ask for a ruling on whether Pawlenty is required to sign an election certificate even if the loser appeals the case to federal court, according to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
“If the court does that, there would be no opportunity for circumvention by Pawlenty,” Menendez said Thursday.
Last week, the White House-allied Americans United for Change launched a new advertisement, which which is airing in Twin Cities and Rochester, Minn. cable markets, calling on Pawlenty to do his “legal duty” and sign an election certificate once the state’s highest court rules.
Republicans dismiss those tactics, and say that Coleman is fighting to ensure that some 4,900 absentee ballots are properly counted, as he argued Thursday in a new brief filed with the state Supreme Court.
National Republicans are eager to see Coleman continue fighting as long as he can – even to the federal level, a process that could take many months. But they are wary of being viewed as directing the fight out of Washington, saying that the decision remains up to Coleman, who can expect the full party’s financial and political backing should he appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court – or wage a new lawsuit in federal district court.
“Obviously it takes on added significance now with Specter’s switch,” Thune said, adding that Coleman’s “strongest argument” that Minnesota counties violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause by using different standards for counting absentee ballots is ripe for federal courts.
NRSC Chairman John Cornyn, who views the race as his first of the cycle, added that he’s “not advising them, I’m just watching. That will have to be determined by Sen. Coleman and his legal team.”
Democrats believe that they are making headway in their argument that the GOP is intentionally dragging the fight out to keep the seat empty.
“I saw this cartoon that says, ‘Al Franken, a final decision has been made, you are now the senator. And President Sasha Obama would like to swear you in,’’” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the majority whip. “I think Cornyn’s idea is to drag this on as long as possible – he said as much – and I think that’s unfair to the voters of Minnesota.”
Menendez also sent out a fundraising plea saying that Republicans will now become “more desperate” now that Specter is a Democrat.
“Norm Coleman will dig in his heels and fight even harder to deny us that filibuster-proof 60th seat.”
The GOP disputes that contention and says that Coleman is simply following the legal appeals set out by law and has a legitimate case to be made before the state’s highest court. And Senate Republicans are warning Democrats will overreach if Franken is seated in the Senate chamber since the GOP will lose their ability to force concessions on major bills by using the filibuster.
“If you lose a case and you feel like there’s a mistake, then you have a right to appeal,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the No. 3 Republican in the Senate. “That’s why we have a system of justice, particularly when we’re protecting the individual’s right to vote.”
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs said that, with the stakes so high, Republicans have nothing left to lose in blocking Franken from being seated – and that the Minnesota Senate race has “just become the last stand at the Alamo” for the GOP.
“The Specter decision makes the Franken seating that much more urgent and politically explosive,” Jacobs said.