Minnesota Lieutenant Gov. Tina Smith will soon head to Washington, where for the next year she’ll fill the U.S. Senate seat of the departing Al Franken, seek to mend the hurt feelings of some over his resignation and compete in what is likely to be a bruising 2018 campaign.
It is a daunting series of tasks that will call upon every bit of the organizational skills, policy knowledge and political smarts that have made Smith a trusted figure among DFLers. But for all her strengths, Smith came to elective life comparatively late, starting when Gov. Mark Dayton elevated her from his chief of staff to a high-profile second. He leaned on her heavily in the 2014 election as a surrogate and in legislative sessions, where she sometimes represented him in end-of-session negotiations — a rare level of responsibility for a lieutenant governor.
But it remains to be seen whether she can successfully navigate the Senate while waging a costly statewide campaign to keep her seat in 2018. Republicans have already started labeling her appointment an inside job. She may also yet face a challenge from within her party, although much of the DFL establishment on Wednesday appeared to be lining up in at least a temporary show of unity.
Franken aided that with a gracious statement that said Smith’s record shows she will be “an effective senator who knows how to work across party lines to get things done for Minnesota,” and he pledged his support with the transition. Smith has said that while she will do the job her way, she hopes Franken staffers will stay on — a smart move that should speed her learning curve.
There are other things to like about this decision. Dayton was wise not to choose a “caretaker,” but someone who is willing to commit to the seat. Smith also has the policy chops to go hard from Day One and a working relationship with U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. Together, the two will make Minnesota only the fourth state in the nation with two female senators, after California, New Hampshire and Washington. At this juncture in history, that makes Smith’s appointment an important statement about ensuring that women have a strong voice at the nation’s capital.
Minnesota deserves the strongest possible candidates in 2018. Smith will have a chance to prove herself, but nothing is preordained. We hope that Republicans will choose a strong candidate and that both parties will engage in a substantive, robust campaign.
There are troubling aspects to Smith’s appointment as well. Dayton loses a trusted adviser and partner and now must welcome Republican state Senate President Michelle Fischbach, 52, of Paynesville, into his inner circle. That will create a new dynamic and possibly the chance for a renewed cooperation, but it’s starting off badly. Senate Republicans, with their one-seat majority, are already signaling that Fischbach can serve as Dayton’s lieutenant without giving up her Senate seat. That has triggered what could be another court brawl between Dayton and the GOP.
Strap in, Minnesota. Political turbulence will continue in 2018.