Senators campaign like their jobs are at risk

  • Article by: KEVIN DIAZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2010 - 9:42 AM

Franken and Klobuchar aren't up for reelection, but the fight for control of the Senate has them working hard.

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Sen. Al Franken chatted with Tarryl Clark, who faces an uphill fight against Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann, at a rally at her Blaine headquarters earlier this month. Franken also had October campaign stops in Massachusetts, Nevada and California for Democratic candidates.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Al Franken is not on the ballot this year, but he's traversing the nation as the Democratic poster child for close elections that could decide control of the U.S. Senate.

"I'm a living example of how every vote counts," he told a crowd in Delaware this month. Franken won his election by a mere 312 votes.

Senior U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar isn't running for anything either this year, but that isn't keeping her from racking up frequent-flier miles to Connecticut, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, where she was the keynote speaker at a Democratic Jefferson-Jackson dinner two weeks ago.

Franken and Klobuchar's travels on behalf of fellow Democrats show how politicians who tend to talk up their bipartisan credentials when their names are on the ballot are free to be as partisan as they like when they're not.

While neither Minnesota senator has any direct skin in the November midterm elections, both have plenty at stake in seeing their party maintain control of the Senate, which has 37 open seats this year, 19 of them being defended by Democrats.

Republicans are outnumbered by Democrats in the Senate 59-41, counting two Democratic-leaning independents. That means they need to pick up 10 seats to wrest control -- a steep climb even in a political climate that favors the GOP.

But for Franken and Klobuchar, with their own future legislative priorities in mind, it doesn't hurt to be sure.

"I think we're going to keep the Senate," Klobuchar predicted. "But obviously, we're going to lose a few seats. Everyone knows that."

Franken, whose Midwest Values PAC has taken in $918,647 this year, lends his considerable fame and fundraising prowess to the Democratic cause. By comparison, Klobuchar's Follow the North Star PAC has posted receipts of just $157,000 so far this year, according to her most recent reports to the Federal Election Commission.

What Klobuchar lacks in cash and national name recognition, she makes up with an aura of popularity back home and in the Senate, where she brings an understated Midwestern sensibility and a certain pioneering status as the first woman to be elected from Minnesota.

"She's clearly in great demand nationally as a fresh face for the Democratic Party," said Klobuchar adviser Jeff Blodgett, executive director of Wellstone Action.

'Stay on the positive side'

Both Franken and Klobuchar have steered money to such embattled Senate colleagues as appointed Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, who faces a strong Republican challenge from Tea Party favorite Ken Buck.

The two are crisscrossing Minnesota to help Mark Dayton in the governor's race, as well as a host of DFL congressional candidates such as Tim Walz and Tarryl Clark, who faces an uphill fight against incumbent Republican Michele Bachmann, a top target for Democrats.

Rallying a group of Clark campaign workers in Blaine earlier this month, Franken reminded them of his narrow victory, a testament to the value of scrapping for every vote.

He's also done a pair of less visible fundraisers this year for Walz, who represents a southern Minnesota district that skews slightly Republican. Some analysts aren't surprised to see a liberal Democrat like Franken confined to private events in more conservative regions of the state.

But Franken state director Alana Peterson said that beyond fundraising, the former satirist effectively rallies the Democratic base wherever he goes and does not shy away from Republican precincts. "Minnesotans like people who stand by their convictions," she said. "Integrity in this state is a big deal."

Klobuchar, meanwhile, is spending at least part of her October campaign recess tallying up visits toward her goal of visiting each of Minnesota's 87 counties every year. This year, she still has about 10 left to go.

One boundary neither Franken nor Klobuchar will cross is the Senate's unwritten rule against campaigning against colleagues. That means steering clear of Democratic challengers trying to unseat incumbent GOP senators.

"I make it a practice not to attack my colleagues, especially in their own states," Klobuchar said. "I've tried to stay on the positive side about who I'm helping."

It's not just a point of etiquette. It's also part of a broader legislative strategy for getting things done in the Senate.

"It's more of a broad message to Republicans that he's not going to shake hands with them on a legislative deal and then go out to their state and campaign against them," said Drew Littman, Franken's chief of staff.

Helping out allies

There's also a long-term legislative strategy involved in spending cash and political capital on allies and colleagues in other states.

"You make some of your choices based on who helped you," Littman said. "That's the only way you're going to get anything done in the Senate. If you don't help the people who helped you, people are going to write you off very quickly."

Both senators say their priority is helping colleagues who share regional or legislative goals. For example, a recent Franken fundraising appeal for Bennet points out that they serve together on an education policy committee that's taking up revisions to the No Child Left Behind law.

Klobuchar, reaching out to a neighboring lawmaker, put Wisconsin on the schedule to help three-term Sen. Russell Feingold, who appears to be trailing Tea Party-backed businessman Ron Johnson, a political newcomer.

Nationally, Franken's October travel schedule includes stops in Massachusetts, Nevada and California, where he is attending an event for a slew of Democratic candidates, including incumbent Sen. Barbara Boxer, who is in a close race against former Hewlett-Packard chief Carly Fiorina.

For Franken, the money game is not just a question of personal preference, but of being true to the people who give to his national political organization. "I give to progressive candidates who people who are donors to my PAC would like to see me give money to," he said.

Despite the overt partisanship, Klobuchar, who will face the voters again in two years, is preparing for a more evenly divided Senate, whichever side ultimately wins control in November.

"People always think courage in Washington is standing alone," she said. "Maybe courage will be defined as standing with somebody you don't usually stand with. That's what we're going to have to do."

Kevin Diaz is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau.

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