With only a longshot court appeal standing in the way of Democrat Al Franken’s election to the Senate, Republicans are gritting their teeth and bracing for the arrival of a new senator whose every utterance will sound like nails on a chalkboard to them.
While Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) has filed suit to contest the results of a disputed recount process that turned his narrow lead into a 225-vote deficit, his likely defeat stands to turn Franken, the polarizing former “Saturday Night Live” writer, into the senator who launched a thousand direct mail fundraising appeals.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had an opponent who is so disliked by Republicans as Al Franken,” said Minnesota Republican Party Chair Ron Carey, who cautioned that Coleman’s election challenge could still turn the results back his way. “It’s one thing to lose to an honorable opponent, but Al Franken is not considered an honorable opponent by Minnesota Republicans.”
Marty Seifert, the Republican leader in the Minnesota House of Representatives, said Franken’s long record of antagonizing conservatives would make it difficult for him to connect with voters who supported Coleman.
“It’s going to be hard for Franken to be very effective with any Republicans, in terms of having any credibility with us, just because he’s been so nasty in the past,” Seifert said. “He certainly has callous and very partisan behavior in the past that is beyond the pale.”
According to Carleton College political scientist Steven Schier, Franken’s record as a “flamboyant and aggressive partisan” would make him ripe for criticism back home.
“I think it’s impossible to overstate the hostility Minnesota Republicans feel toward Al Franken,” Schier said. “He will be a very useful fundraising tool.”
Republicans outside Minnesota are equally apoplectic when it comes to Franken. Prominent conservative Rush Limbaugh, who Franken mocked in the title of one of his books, has already jabbed Franken on his radio show, telling listeners in December that Franken “won’t quit [the Senate race] because he doesn’t know how to get a real job…He’s a pathetic figure.”
Democrats are hopeful that the resentment Franken faces from Republicans both within and outside of his home state will not impede his ability to win over his constituents – and his fellow members of the U.S. Senate. They believe that by leaving behind his past as a bomb-throwing entertainer and focusing on issues, he will earn the respect of colleagues and can build on the 42 percent of the vote he won in November.
“Every freshman senator will have a problem fitting in with that crew, but his will be a little more difficult,” said former Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch, who was the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s nominee for governor in 2006.
Hatch, who served as attorney general during the gubernatorial term of former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, said celebrity candidates can’t take the habits of their old jobs with them into office.
“There is this instinct and discipline of 20 or 30 years in the entertainment business…to draw attention,” Hatch said. “He has to have a filter.”
Polling results this week confirmed Franken's precarious position: more Minnesotans have a negative impression of him than a positive one, by a 45 percent to 37 percent margin. Those would be dismal numbers under any circumstances, but for a newly-elected senator they would be particularly alarming.
Matt Entenza, the former DFL Party leader in the Minnesota House, said Franken had defied expectations in the Senate race by restraining his sense of humor and campaigning as a sober workhorse.
“The struggle for the campaign was always trying to communicate that he was a serious guy, and in some ways I think they toned him down almost too much, tried to be almost too serious,” he explained. “You would see local TV anchors giving him questions that were designed to give him an opportunity for a humorous response. He would give a very serious, wonkish policy response.”
Former DFL Sen. Mark Dayton agreed: “He had to show people that he was really serious about issues, that he had a depth of policy understanding.”
It’s not just Democrats who expect Franken, the author of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right,” will chart a different course in the Senate.
Tim Penny, a former DFL congressman who joined the Minnesota Independence Party to run for governor in 2002, said he expected Franken to be hyper-cautious about reviving concerns about his past career as a comedian and political provocateur.
“I expect that on Capitol Hill he will be a very serious legislator – almost to the extreme,” Penny said.
“I think he’s very determined to separate himself from that image of being nothing but a comedian,” he continued. “I doubt he’ll be accepting very many speaking engagements around the country, and to the extent that he does, I don’t think they’ll get the comedian they’re expecting.”
While Franken’s allies in Minnesota are optimistic about his ability to temper his style to one that is more suited to the Senate, Republicans say self-restraint may not come so easily to such an experienced performer.
“If he was in the U.S. Senate, would there be any professional decorum he could exhibit?” asked Carey, the GOP chairman. “Would he be able to control himself?”
Indeed, at the height of the campaign, even as he was locked in the political equivalent of mortal combat with Coleman, Franken couldn’t quite resist the comedic impulse, consulting on a “Saturday Night Live” skit mocking Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in late September.
“I think that he’ll have a constant battle between the desire for – how shall I put it? – comedic satisfaction and a senatorial image,” said Schier. “Can he help himself? Can he prevent himself from trying to be funny in a controversial way?”
And though Franken may have tried to project a serious image on the campaign trail, he struggled to escape his record as a performer, and some of his more off-color writings wound up in Republican press releases and advertisements.
In May, the Minnesota Republican Party drew attention to an article Franken wrote for Playboy in 2000, titled “Porn-o-Rama!”, charging that it represented “the disrespectful writings of a nearly 50-year-old man who seems to think that women’s bodies are the domain of a man who just wants to have a good time.”
Later in the race, a Coleman ad criticized Franken for writing “tasteless, sexist jokes,” “juicy porn” and “foul-mouthed attacks on anyone he disagrees with.”
The attacks apparently stuck, at least with Republicans. Republican activist Joe Repya, a retired military officer who considered running against Coleman in the GOP primary, said Franken is “viewed by both sides as a mean-spirited, carpet-bagging, foul-mouthed sexist supported by Hollywood money.”
“Franken, to his credit, was able to make enough people believe that he was only a comedian and that his skits and writings didn’t really show his real self,” Repya said.
In addition to his background as a comedian, Penny said Franken could turn out to be a senator whose voting record proves out of the Minnesota political mainstream.
“He will be a very reliable, 90-plus percent vote for the Democratic leadership,” Penny said, suggesting Franken would be “down the line, in synch with the Democratic interest groups.”
With heated criticism likely to come Franken’s way throughout a term in the Senate, Dayton suggested one way Franken’s former career could come in handy.
“I hope he retains a sense of humor,” Dayton said. “A sense of humor is a valuable asset in politics in general, and in the Senate.”
He quickly added: “In the right context.”