WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman has painstakingly maneuvered to stay in the game here.
Long a fixture on the Minnesota political scene until he lost his bid for a second term, Coleman’s day job now includes representing the interests of the Saudis, the Indonesians and the Emiratis on Capitol Hill. He runs South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s super PAC in hopes of getting him elected president. Recently he forged ties with former Sen. Joe Lieberman to launch a nonprofit organization that is urging members of Congress, mostly via television commercials, to oppose the Iran nuclear deal.
In the six years since leaving public office, Coleman wields more clout inside the Republican Party than he did when he was a senator. He has crafted a national reputation as a lucrative lobbyist, a formidable fundraiser and has emerged as a rising star behind the curtain in the GOP 2016 presidential primaries.
The former politician, who turns 66 Monday, is still known as “senator” to those working at the front of the house in posh downtown Washington establishments that he frequents on weeknights with clients. Trim, tanned and always wearing a dark suit and his Senate pin, Coleman often orders just hot tea or an appetizer.
On the weekends, just as he did as a senator from 2003 to 2009, Coleman hops a flight to Minneapolis and then drives, usually with his wife, to a cabin three hours north of the Twin Cities to go fishing. On Mondays, he usually returns to Washington, where he has an apartment in suburban Virginia — a crash pad at various points for his 20-something kids, as well, when they cycled through jobs here.
“I’m like an over-the-road trucker,” he said, from his D.C. high-rise office with espresso makers, lofty views and framed photos of former President George W. Bush everywhere. “I go out on the road, I’m gone four days, then home for four nights. … This is where I can earn the money to take care of my family, and I’m proud to be able to do that.”
Coleman has some competing interests between his largely secretive fundraising life — his nonprofit 501(c)4 groups, the Minnesota Action Network, American Security Initiative and American Action Network, do not have to disclose donors — and his main job as a lawyer and lobbyist.
The Saudi government, for example, has softened its initial stance against the Iran deal and now is signaling some tepid support for the Obama administration. While representing that embassy on Capitol Hill, Coleman is working to fight the nuclear agreement this month via a national grasstop movement homing in on undecided members of Congress ahead of the September vote.
A large portion of his clients hail from the Arab world, yet Coleman is among the most prominent Jewish lobbyists in D.C., and chairs the Israel Working Group, a network of lawyers working around the world on Israeli issues.
Coleman opposes same-sex marriage but represents the American Unity Fund in pushing a gay nondiscrimination bill on the Hill.
He insists it’s hard to pull a thread through all his interests — both in his job as a lawyer/lobbyist and his behind-the-scenes political work.
“The nature of lobbying is that if you have relationships where you can at least get someone’s attention … it helps,” Coleman said.
Both the Minnesota Action Network and the American Action Network are pushing to promote “center-right” ideas and candidates on election years. Coleman says he is proud of the Minnesota group and hopes he can help flip a dozen seats to give Republicans control of the state Senate.
The obvious synergy between Coleman’s diverse personal and professional interests is relatively unusual, said Noah Bookbinder, executive director of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, an advocacy organization that studies power and influence.
Several years ago, Bookbinder’s group lodged several complaints with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission against Coleman’s American Action Network, alleging it was so political that it was not properly operating as a not-for-profit organization and should be required to disclose its donors.
The FEC dismissed the complaint. CREW sued to get officials to take a look at it again, and that lawsuit is pending.
“He’s someone who pushes the envelope on what is allowed under tax laws and campaign finance laws,” Bookbinder said. “It’s just hard to know what all his motivations are and whether each group is properly staying in its lane. … You have all these transparency issues because it’s so hard to tell where all the money is coming from and how these groups work together.”
Coleman’s tense history with the watchdog group, and all its complaints against his campaigns, irks him. “Everything we do is following the law,” he said.
A player in 2016
In the 17-person pileup that is the Republican presidential field, Sen. Graham may be among the least likely to emerge victorious after the early state primaries.
Coleman, typically a pragmatist, says raising money on Graham’s behalf is a labor of love. The two are old friends who entered the U.S. Senate together and who share a passion for foreign policy. Graham’s super PAC, Security Is Strength, raised almost $3 million from January through the end of June this year.
Coleman acknowledges it’s easier to raise money when working for a candidate at the front of the pack, rather than the back.
“It’s something I am proud to do,” he said. “There is still time. … I think he’ll make better candidates of others. I think he has an important role in this process.”
Though he already has lost both a Minnesota gubernatorial bid and a second term as U.S. senator, the state’s political chattering class often revives Coleman’s name as a possible contender for a future statewide office.
Longtime Minnesota Republican strategist Ben Golnik said Coleman continues to help Republicans up and down the ballot across Minnesota.
“Even seven years after leaving the U.S. Senate, Norm still has a strong following,” Golnik said. “He is well-liked and would certainly be considered a very strong candidate for statewide office.” Coleman’s loss in 2008 to Democrat Al Franken was paper-thin — 312 votes out of 2.8 million cast — and led to a monthslong recount in one of closest Senate contests in U.S. history.
Asked about Coleman, DFL Chair Ken Martin said the former senator was guided more by political winds than any set of convictions.
“I’ve known Norm for a long time. I knew him when he was a Democrat,” Martin said, noting Coleman’s famous party switch in the mid-1990s. “I don’t think Minnesotans have a lot of love for Norm Coleman, and it’s not surprising that he has taken his wares and shopped them nationally because I don’t think they work in Minnesota.”
Coleman himself keeps the door open.
“Had Mitt Romney been president, I probably could have been ambassador to the U.N.,” he said. “I wouldn’t automatically reject the idea to serve again because I love public service. In terms of running for office again, the odds are pretty slim, but I’m certainly not saying never.”