MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith, who was appointed to take former Sen. Al Franken's seat after he resigned, won Tuesday's special election to finish the final two years of his term.
The longtime Democratic power player defeated Republican state Sen. Karin Housley, who had an energetic campaign and a name made famous by her husband's professional hockey career. Housley gave Republicans hope they could win back the office that the party lost to Franken in 2008.
Smith reflected on the whirlwind of campaigning and serving in the Senate since her January appointment.
"I am grateful to everyone in Minnesota who has put their faith in me," she told a raucous crowd of Democrats in St. Paul. "When we started this effort 10 months ago, I said that I should not be underestimated. Tonight, we showed the country that Minnesota must not be underestimated."
Less than four years after voters overwhelmingly gave Franken a second term, he was swept out of office when several women accused of him of sexual misconduct. His resignation in December triggered the contest between Smith and Housley.
Smith will finish the term ending in 2020, when she could potentially stand for re-election.
Tuesday's election was a rarity in Minnesota, with two U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar easily captured a third term over little-known state Rep. Jim Newberger.
With Franken's departure, Republicans jumped at the unexpected chance to reclaim an office they have not held since former Sen. Norm Coleman lost to Franken by 312 votes. Housley quickly emerged as the top GOP candidate, with her reputation as a fierce campaigner and a name recognition boost from her husband, former NHL star and Buffalo Sabres head coach Phil Housley.
Republican men, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Reps. Tom Emmer and Erik Paulsen, quickly passed on the race, and Housley easily clinched the party's nod in an August primary.
Public polling showed the race close, but it never seriously figured in the nationwide battle for control of the Senate. Outside political organizations with their eyes on the Senate majority spent just a trickle in Minnesota, focusing millions instead on North Dakota, Wisconsin and other more promising states.
Phillip Baum, 63, a self-described moderate conservative in Minnetonka, split his ticket Tuesday, backing Klobuchar in her Senate race but Republican Jeff Johnson for governor. Baum, a general contractor, said he was on the fence in the Smith-Housley race until Smith skipped a televised debate.
"That sent the wrong message for me," Baum said. He voted for Housley.
Sarah Roth, 22, also of Minnetonka, went for Smith as part of a straight-Democratic vote. Roth described herself as a liberal and said she thought it was critical to change the balance of power in the country.
"I think the past couple of years, ever since President Trump has been in office, it has just been not the country that I am used to or that I thought I would be in."
Smith got a head start in the race when Gov. Mark Dayton announced in December that he would appoint her to Franken's seat. Smith had been Dayton's lieutenant governor since 2015 and a longtime trusted aide, serving as his chief of staff after a career spent running campaigns and as a Planned Parenthood executive.
After joining the Senate in January, Smith cultivated an image of a studious senator with sober, issue-focused ads on tackling pharmaceutical costs and vocational job training. She tried to avoid engaging with Housley throughout the campaign, including skipping a debate televised statewide and leaving Housley alone on stage. Smith said a busy campaign and Senate schedule got in the way, and the pair still had two debates.
But Housley bashed Smith for her absence and spent much of the campaign casting her as a longtime political insider with a hand in major flops during Dayton's administration, including the rocky launch of a new driver-registration system and pervasive abuse and neglect at senior centers statewide.