WASHINGTON – In the first wave of television ads launched by Sen. Al Franken’s re-election campaign, sometimes Minnesota’s junior senator hardly says a word.
Instead, he relies on ordinary Minnesotans — a small-business owner and a single mother, for example — to make the case for what he says he has accomplished in Washington during his five years in office.
It’s a sign that Franken, despite decades on the national stage as a performer, writer and satirist, knows he needs to reintroduce himself, and more importantly his achievements, to Minnesota voters.
After winning the narrowest Senate race in the country by a few hundred votes in 2008, Franken buried himself in Capitol Hill work, intent on proving that he was a serious lawmaker who tackled such weighty issues as corporate mergers, net neutrality and health insurance reform. Along the way, he mostly eschewed the kind of national media attention that other first-term senators embrace.
Now Franken is trying to warm up his image and connect his accomplishments to the lives of voters.
Since May, his campaign has spent roughly $1.4 million on four ads that depict him strolling through a middle-class neighborhood talking about battling Wall Street, visiting a tool factory and sitting at the kitchen table of a Minnesota Republican woman with a health problem. The ads highlight legislation he worked to get passed during one of the most divisive and dysfunctional periods in the history of the U.S. Congress, including boosts to mental health funding, pharmacy reform and tighter regulation of big banks.
Though his high-profile victory and years in office have given him name recognition, Franken’s been hitting the campaign trail like a newbie, working holidays and long weekends to make his case for re-election with voters. He’s turned up at the Hmong Leadership Dinner, a gay pride parade, and celebrations for Somali Independence Day and Cinco de Mayo. He’s inspected mudslide damage at a hospital in Minneapolis and hosted a reception for winners of his military children’s poetry contest in St. Paul.
At a time when congressional approval ratings are mired in the teens and this Congress is on pace to be the least productive ever — it has passed fewer than 60 bills in 2014 — Franken is walking a fine line.
His incumbency can be both a blessing and a curse. Even as he strives to show he’s getting things done for Minnesotans, he could be vulnerable to charges that he also has been part of the acrimony and gridlock that is gripping Washington. Yet his incumbency gives him a record and a public profile that could be an asset over the GOP’s lesser-known endorsed candidate, Mike McFadden.
McFadden, a former chief executive at Lazard Middle Market with no background in politics, is making his first run. He still must get through his party primary in August, where he faces state House Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.
GOP take on Franken
Republicans see Franken’s record — and his ad campaign — differently. They are vowing to lump him in with the unpopular Congress, blaming him for some of its struggle to get anything done. They also plan to tie him to President Obama throughout the campaign.
“He’s an extremely loyal Democrat,” said GOP consultant and former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber. “What it’s left him with is nothing to distinguish himself from the down-the-line Obama, party-line Democrat in a year in which that’s not very good, even in Minnesota. I think that’s a vulnerability.”
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, the Republican who lost to Franken by 312 votes in a recount that stretched halfway into 2009, is working behind the scenes to help McFadden oust Franken.
“I have gotta believe that most Minnesotans are not happy with the lack of job growth and work happening in Washington,” Coleman said.
Franken says his message to voters this summer — in ads and in person — reflects how he has approached his role in the Senate. But, he said, voters lead busy lives and he can’t presume most know his record.
“A lot of a campaign is reminding people what you did,” Franken said.
What his TV ads don’t parse, though, is legislative reality: Even grand accomplishments are usually spawned from even bigger ideas weakened in the sausage-making that occurs on Capitol Hill every day.
Take Wall Street reform, which Franken boasted about in a recent ad. The senator initially wanted a dramatic overhaul of Standard & Poor’s credit rating system. That idea was weakened in the Dodd-Frank banking overhaul and the final law only required the Securities and Exchange Commission to complete a study of the ratings system before acting.
On mental health, which he also promotes in an ad, Franken twice attempted to get more money to schools for that purpose. He failed both times, either because the measure didn’t pass the House or stalled outside a Senate committee. He finally cut a deal in the Senate’s 2014 budget bill to get $40 million this year to schools and another $15 million in grants.
Franken said he is proud of his work and comfortable with the head-down approach he’s taken in the past five years.
“I feel good with the way I’ve done my job,” he said. “I’ve worked very hard to gain people in Minnesota’s trust and it will ultimately be up to them to look at me and what I’ve done … and make a choice.”