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He believes that the answer to each of those questions is yes. Franken owes much of his success so far to his ability to forge alliances, even friendships, with Republican senators. A sense of humor on both sides can break down a lot of barriers, he said. “They figured out pretty quickly that I laugh a lot.”
At the same time, he has emerged as perhaps the Senate’s toughest critic of corporate power, especially in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, allowing unlimited corporate contributions to politicians. “They gave corporations a blank check to utterly destroy our political system,” he told his colleagues in 2012.
Tough election ahead
Until President Obama’s popularity began to unravel last fall, Franken was considered a heavy favorite for re-election this year. With high approval ratings (51 percent) and an impressive talent for fundraising, he’s still favored to win. But Obama’s slide has improved Republican chances for retaking the Senate next fall. And, in Minnesota, the corporate community has produced a candidate — financial executive Mike McFadden, a political novice — who may have enough money to overcome Tea Party opposition and emerge as Franken’s November opponent.
A well-funded moderate with potential appeal to independent and suburban voters probably offers the GOP its best hope. Remember, Franken won a three-way race with less than 42 percent of the vote in 2008 — and by a microscopic margin (312 votes). He benefited from a heavy DFL turnout for Obama, a turnout he can’t count on next fall. And his appeal to outstate voters was limited then and is probably still in doubt. Then there’s his enthusiastic support for the Affordable Care Act, which stumbled badly out of the blocks. “His fingerprints are all over it,” said Jacobs. “He can’t run away from that one.”
Franken acknowledges the challenge and says the best he can do is let the political chips fall and hope that voters see him as a surprisingly pragmatic problem-solver. In the end, low expectations may be his best friend. “It’s great when people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t vote for you but you’re doing better than I expected.”
Steve Berg is a Minneapolis writer and consultant. He covered Congress and national politics for the Star Tribune from 1981 to 1993.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.