Does Coleman have any real chance of retaining his Senate seat?
The answer, according to state political and legal analysts, is that it would take a miracle. Miracles do happen in politics — but four weeks into a court case that will decide the winner of Minnesota’s tortured Senate race, the GOP incumbent is facing just-about-insurmountable hurdles to overcome the 225-vote deficit he was saddled with at the end of the official recount.
The court itself has not yet counted a single vote. Instead, a three-judge panel is considering a pool of disputed ballots and steadily ruling which are legitimate and should be counted, and which should be thrown out.
Coleman wants most of the ballots included, believing they will tilt the election in his favor. But so far, the court’s decisions favor the Democratic challenger, comedian and author Al Franken, experts say. And that trend is expected to continue.
“Norm Coleman’s life support system is slowly weakening,” said Larry Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.
The latest blow came Friday, when the judges considered 19 different categories of rejected absentee ballots and ruled that 12 of the categories had to be thrown out. That lowered the number of absentee ballots eligible for inclusion from about 4,800 to around 3,300 — down from about 12,000 at the beginning of the trial.
Coleman’s campaign asked the panel to reconsider, arguing that the ruling presents inconsistent standards for sorting ballots and creates an equal protection dilemma. On Wednesday, the court denied Coleman’s request.
“The ruling Friday was the distant sound of the bells tolling for the Coleman campaign because it restricted the pool of votes,” Jacobs said. “That is a very harmful ruling, and that’s why the Coleman campaign has been crawling on its knees, asking for reconsideration.”
Coleman’s prospect for winning largely rests on getting the majority of the remaining 3,300 rejected absentee ballots into the count and carrying those votes by a large enough margin to overturn Franken’s narrow lead. Most of the ballots are from Coleman-friendly precincts and likely would break in his direction.
But many initially were rejected for valid reasons — such as mismatched signatures or because the absentee voter's witness was not a registered voter — and only a fraction of the remaining ballots are expected to be approved for inclusion, observers say.
“The Coleman list will continue to shrink throughout this trial,” Franken attorney Marc Elias asserted. “When we actually get to the point of opening and counting ballots, it’s going to be a relatively small number of votes.”
Meanwhile, Franken’s campaign successfully petitioned the judges to consider counting a group of uncounted absentee ballots that is expected to favor his tally; the list is to be submitted on Friday.
But Coleman attorney Ben Ginsberg predicted that at least half of the remaining 3,300 disputed ballots would be approved for counting by the court, which he said would be enough for Coleman to overcome his 225-vote deficit.
“Things keep getting better because the universe of ballots is more than enough for us to make up the difference,” Ginsberg said.
Just as important, Ginsberg hinted that the Coleman campaign was laying the groundwork for future appeals, saying Wednesday that the election was “fatally flawed” and claiming a “widespread equal protection problem.” Specifically, he said, ballots included in the official recount fell under a standard that the court disallowed in its most recent ruling. If the new standard were now applied to the recounted ballots, Ginsberg claimed, Franken would lose as many as 100 votes.
“The net effect,” Ginsberg said, “is a legal quagmire that makes ascertaining a final, legitimate result to this election even more difficult.”
Still, the prospect of protracted legal proceedings could prove burdensome for Coleman. He will need to continue raising enough money to pay his high-profile legal team, and if donors see his case as a lost cause, he could have difficulty fundraising.
So far, he’s raised just over $5 million from supporters since the November election. The National Republican Senatorial Committee hosted a fundraiser for Coleman last week, with hosts paying $2,300 and attendees paying between $500 and $1,000. Several Republican senators, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have already donated the maximum possible to his recount fund.
Coleman doesn’t have enough money to pay for the recount on his own, and he recently took a job as a consultant for the Republican Jewish Coalition to pay his bills.
If he loses the election, Coleman has been rumored as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2010, should Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty not run for a third term. But continuing a drawn-out court battle could hurt his chances for future statewide office, a recent survey suggested.
In January, as the trial began, 47 percent of Minnesota voters surveyed said they opposed Coleman’s legal challenge, while only 34 percent supported it, according to a Research 2000 poll. Analysts said that voter dissatisfaction with having only one sitting senator will only grow if Coleman carries his appeals to the state Supreme Court.
“It looks like time is running out for Norm Coleman,” said Jacobs. “There will be a point where the political and financial costs will have gone too far. And the opportunity to pull this out has dwindled down.”