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Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken is starting his re-election bid with $1.3 million in the bank, according to new campaign finance reports, and a powerful fundraising reach.
While Republicans have been itching to take him on in 2014, the cushion he had at the end of last year could give them a renewed reason to fret that Franken currently does not have a high-profile challenger. The freshman senator raised more than $20 million for his first run against Republican incumbent Norm Coleman and eked out an exceedingly close win after a prolonged recount battle.
This time, Franken will have the power of the office on his side.
"He isn't a pushover," said Jennifer Duffy, Senate race analyst with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "You are going to need someone really strong and pretty well known to run against him."
Republicans say that there is still plenty of time for candidates to come forward and that the eventual candidate will be a natural draw for cash, given the GOP ire at Franken.
"It's very early in the process for a candidate to have declared," said Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Pat Shortridge. "I'm confident that we'll have a very high-quality candidate against Al Franken. Despite his attempt to reinvent himself as the mature, respectable Al Franken, he's still the same old Al, only now has a very liberal voting record on top of it. ... The right candidate could get in next year and still win."
The Cook Political Report ranks Minnesota's coming U.S. Senate race as one that leans toward the Democrats. But that could quickly change if the right candidate steps forward to challenge Franken, Duffy said.
Last month, Coleman, now a lobbyist and political action committee head, said he would not be that challenger. But both U.S. Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen have left open the possibility that they may try to step up to the Senate. Meanwhile, a recent poll found that Republican voters would prefer that U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann take on the Franken race.
All three Republican House members from Minnesota have filed federal committees to allow them to raise money for re-election efforts but that does not lock them into running for their current seats.
Of the three, Bachmann is the most powerful fundraiser by far. As of the end of 2012, a few weeks after she squeaked out a re-election win, Bachmann had more than $2 million in the bank. She also reported that she transferred $100,000 from her House campaign to her presidential committee.
Franken's cash cushion, said Duffy, is a respectable start but is not as much as he will need.
But Franken has yet to fundraise for his re-election in earnest. Most of last year his fundraising pleas and events were focused on Senate colleagues and other Democrats who were fighting in 2012.
"Now that he is up for re-election, he will spend more time on his own fundraising," said Ed Shelleby, Franken spokesman. In January, Franken held one Washington, D.C., fundraiser, timed around President Obama's inauguration and headlined by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which raised more than $400,000. That haul is not reflected in the report due on Thursday.
Franken also has used his large e-mail list to bring in the cash for his campaign. One plea this week was titled: "Open this email-- not those other ones."
"Many of the other emails in your inbox that want your money probably aren't worth opening. Do you really need a subscription to your local laser tag emporium -- even at half price?" the e-mail asked. "Nobody wants to play laser tag more than once or twice, but helping me fight for the middle class will pay off in 2014 and beyond."
Rachel E. Stassen-Berger Twitter: @rachelsb