What Al Franken’s Normcore Senate Race Can Teach Other Democrats
Despite a snippy debate Sunday, the senator’s run a staid campaign—and hasn’t distanced himself from Obama. The pundits may be bored, but he’s winning a state the GOP hoped to pick up.
Observers have noted that Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) has made strenuous efforts to distinguish his second career as a politician from his previous stint as a comedian by being as boring and staid as possible. So no wonder that the snippy exchanges that characterized Sunday’s debate between Franken and Republican challenger Mike McFadden was described in the media as a “free-for-all.” One local blogger’s headline captured the frenzy: “Franken, McFadden raise voices, interrupt one another during Senate debate.”
One must keep in mind that, in Minnesota, they think ice fishing is exciting. (I say this with much love for my adopted home state.) In the era of Tea Party stunts and dramatic fan-based delays, the debate was moderately fussy. Its most dramatic and politically risky moment came when Franken offered “the Green Bay Packer model” as an alternative to the corporate structure of the NFL—and then McFadden asserted that Minnesotans might not care about football! Its other distinguishing feature was relative substantiveness, aside from a pointless 10 minutes arguing about whether we should ban all the nonexistent flights from West African countries.
Debate theatrics—such as they were—aside, not many people will be paying attention to the Minnesota Senate race returns next Thursday. Franken will win in a walk. He's currently up 10 points in the average of current polls over McFadden; 538 gives Franken just 4 percent chance of losing. And the lack of interest or excitement or doubt about that race is exactly why we need to think about it.
Last January, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell mentioned Minnesota in the same breath as Colorado and New Hampshire as a possible pickup for Senate Republicans. As late as August, pollsters predicted Franken would have “a fight on his hands.”
Those prognosticators had reason to believe the 10,000 lakes could bleed a little red into Washington. In 2008, Franken won his seat by just over 300 votes, and since then he’s been a staunch ally of the increasingly unpopular president, who hit a state-record low of 40 percent approval in September). Minnesota’s transition to its insurance exchange, MNSure, was as rocky as any, and residents disapprove of Obamacare as whole by 54 percent.
So why is Franken winning? How is it that his own approval rating has gone steadily upward, from 41 percent to 53 percent, since his bruising battle with Norm Coleman in 2008? Can other Democrats take any positive lessons from Minnesota besides “You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And doggone it, people like you”?
What Franken has done is not as important as what he hasn’t done. He hasn’t panicked, either about Obama’s unpopularity or about much of anything. His committee questioning is deliberate and difficult to prune into soundbites, and on everything from Ebola to ISIS to immigration, his standard first answer is to call for small steps and more study.
A lifetime on television has taught him to avoid cameras as well as seek them, and his main form of communication with the press is the open letter or press release. (He also appears on cooking shows.) But he hasn’t backed away from his legislative record, either, and he hasn’t bashed Washington. He has carefully pruned back the creeping vines of Establishment and allowed some provincial protectiveness to peek through: During Sunday’s debate, he drew a distinction between protecting the country from Ebola and keeping it out of Minnesota. He also backs the minimum wage and regulation of credit agencies and a bunch of other economically populist positions that are only controversial in the minds of those stuck in maker/taker delusions.
Really, the Franken-McFadden race is, like most things Minnesota, almost comically average—normcore democracy, representative of a typical race in a typical midterm cycle with typical candidates talking about typical issues. So, typically, the incumbent is winning.
In the manufactured excitement of (you might say typical) punditry, the power of incumbency is played down in service of the drama of upsets. But don’t be fooled: The powerful inertia that keeps the same planets in orbit around Washington year after year is still in play, no matter what the president’s approval rating is. Of the 435 members of the House up for election, only 70 are in any danger of losing their seats; 18 of the 28 senators seeking another term have their victory firmly in hand.
I don’t mean to celebrate incumbency (and the huge financial advantage that comes with it) so much as to point out that drama is a distraction—and, really, an aberration. It’s a function of the media’s frenetic heat-seeking, which itself hones in on contests where money has fueled and attention has fanned the raw combustible matter of politicians’ egos and donors’ agendas.
Several commentators have written off the entire midterms because of the volume of attacks and deepening partisanship. They seem to have forgotten that the empty vitriol they complain about is something spewed in part for the media’s benefit. They’ve decided the midterms are devoid of content because they lack the noise that their own conflict-seeking coverage creates. The issues seem “stale” only because the commentators demand to be entertained.
In Minnesota, we’ve got testy exchanges and attack ads but deliberately boring candidates with polished negative charisma (though McFadden might have been blessed to have been born with it). Minnesotans like it that way: The memory of Jesse Venture looms large in many memories. There’s a beauty to it, as well. The gift of candidates devoid of personality is that the character of the electorate has a chance to come through. And it turns out that in 2014, “Minnesota nice” is “Minnesota blue.”