The Coleman-Franken recount: Can it be over soon?

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 23, 2009 - 12:47 PM
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Norm Coleman, Al Franken

Carolyn Ruff and Owen Reynolds may not have much in common when it comes to politics, but they agree on one point: Whoever finally loses the U.S. Senate election trial should throw in the towel.

While she'd hate to see a defeat for Norm Coleman, "I don't think he should appeal, because I don't feel it will do any good," Ruff said, sitting in a coffee shop in Chaska, in Carver County, which handed the Republican his biggest margin in the November election. "I would hope that he has the good sense to just stop."

Outside a bookstore in St. Paul, ardent Democrat Reynolds said if the decision went against his candidate, Al Franken, "I'd say, 'You lost fair and square, you'll run again. ... Enough is enough.'"

As the candidates await a verdict from the three judges who oversaw the trial, expectations grow that the loser will appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court. And that has stirred speculation over the effect a continued court battle would have on the reputations and political prospects of the candidates -- especially the one who comes up short.

"It's either win or oblivion," said Hamline University Prof. David Schultz. "Whoever loses is viewed as the obstructionist, the person who held up Minnesota seating a senator."

But Coleman has perhaps more to lose in the long term if he continues to wage an unsuccessful fight, said University of Minnesota political scientist Lawrence Jacobs.

"The longer he stays in and fights, it diminishes his chances of running for governor, which seems like a real possibility," Jacobs said. "In some people's eyes there's just irritation that this has gone on. That's not necessarily fair. Norm Coleman's decision to enter the [trial] is entirely legitimate and appropriate.

"But for independent voters and voters who don't follow things very closely, the recount and now the contested election has eroded his support."

Franken emerged from the recount in early January with a 225-vote lead, which Coleman promptly challenged in a lawsuit. The three-judge panel repeatedly ruled against him during the seven-week trial, which ended March 13 amid strong indications that Coleman was braced for a loss but prepared to fight on.

In closing arguments, Coleman attorney Joe Friedberg reproached the judges for rulings he said were "wrong" and raised points about due process and equal protection that seemed tailored for an appeal.

Asked on KFAN Radio last week whether he thought the judges would rule against Coleman, Friedberg said, "I think that's probably correct that Franken will still be ahead and probably by a little bit more. But our whole argument was a constitutional argument, and it's an argument which is really suited for the Minnesota Supreme Court, not for the trial court."

Friedberg predicted "a very quick appeal."

Unpopular before the trial

But the prospect of a protracted battle irks some regardless of their political leanings.

"I think the loser here is going to be Minnesota," said Ruff, 46, a conservative who said the outcome of a court fight can always be disputed. She favors a runoff election as more decisive and is pessimistic that Coleman can persuade a higher court to reverse the results of the recount.

Her friend, Nancy Kumsher, 42, who leans Republican, also thought Coleman could hurt himself by appealing a loss.

"I would hope that his career is not over," she said. "While people still care, it's time to move on. Another trial, people won't care anymore."

In Waconia, Skye True-Hagenstein, 44, didn't have strong feelings about the candidates but said however the panel rules, "You got to stick with their decision. That's enough. ... They should just let it go."

She thought Coleman, if he loses, would still have a chance of becoming governor "if he's a good sport" in defeat.

Fueling the desire to end the battle is the perception that the trial will be paid for by taxpayers. State law requires a losing contestant -- Coleman in this case -- to pay court costs, but it's less likely the contestee, Franken, would pay if he lost. Franken has asked the court to additionally order Coleman to pay a portion of the DFLer's costs and lawyers' fees.

Sinking approval

The candidates entered the trial with sinking approval ratings that could hinder a personality makeover after the court battle ends. A KSTP Survey USA poll in early January showed that only 38 percent of Minnesotans had a favorable impression of Coleman and that only 37 percent thought the same of Franken.

"The two of them weren't popular before all this started," Schultz said.

"Even the winner will have to figure out a strategy to regain a decent approval rating," said St. Olaf College political science Prof. Dan Hofrenning.

A lengthy and failing appeal could hurt Coleman in practical terms if he wants to run for governor in 2010 should Gov. Tim Pawlenty step aside to run for president.

"He'd have to turn around very quickly and go from paying off litigation debt to start raising money to run for governor," Schultz said. "That's going to be really hard."

Still, Coleman might have a chance because the stable of potential GOP gubernatorial successors is small and he'd likely be a front-runner, Jacobs said. "The big question, though, is: 'Is Norm Coleman damaged goods?' This has been a brutal process."

But Reynolds, 43, the St. Paul Democrat, thinks the process will quickly be forgotten if Coleman regains his Senate seat.

"I think Coleman realizes that if he wins, it doesn't matter how he won -- once he's a senator, he's a senator," Reynolds said. "So I can kind of see his point."

Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210

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