Al Franken is going to be the junior Senator from Minnesota, and that is reason to celebrate.
Mobilized by the Times
Of all the non-presidential races in the 2008 election cycle, I'll say I was most emotionally invested in the Minnesota Senate race between Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) candidate Al Franken and incumbent Republican Norm Coleman. Over the past several years, I felt like I had watched Franken spurred to incrementally greater actions by events around him. Like most people, my first exposure to Al was on Saturday Night Live, where he was just damn funny. Later, I heard about his book, Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I never read that one, but I appreciated that he was willing to stand up to a monster and a bully.
I noticed Franken again in 2003, when he published, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right. The book's cover shows the faces of Bush, Cheney, Ann Coulter, and Bill O'Reilly. The book was excellent, and I loved that Franken could demolish the positions of the Right, while remaining hilarious. You probably remember, 2003 was a dark time in American politics. It was heartening to see a guy dig in his heels and lower his shoulder into the advancing Republican machine. Franken seemed, to me, not like a comedian who happened to have some political opinions, but like a really smart guy with ideas and convictions, who happened to be funny.
In 2004, Al became a talk show host on Air America Radio, where he hosted the "The O'Franken Factor," later renamed "The Al Franken Show," which ran 3 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 years. In 2005, he wrote, The Truth (with jokes), at the beginning of Bush's second term. "The Truth" was a more serious, less shooting-from-the-hip, less funny kind of book. In retrospect, I think Franken had begun to realize that a lot of people actually took him seriously, so he started to act (a little) more like a traditional political personality. I think the passion and feeling had also grown more intense and began to overshadow the jokes.
His story is one of a pretty normal, flawed, likable guy--a comedian--who was transformed into a serious politician by a genuine and righteous indignation at those who had hijacked our government. He started out yelling and pointing at the absurdities and lies, because it was a time that required some yelling. He ended up in towns all over Minnesota talking like a wonk about healthcare, retirement, and renewable energy.
The Wellstone Seat
I've learned that we can't really understand the intensity of Franken and the Minnesota DFLers in this campaign without knowing something about the late Sen. Paul Wellstone. He joined the Senate in 1991 and represented Minnesota as a true-blue progressive. He was called "The Conscience of the Senate." He made mental illness issues a focus of his career and also focused especially on peace, environment, labor, and health care issues. Wellstone voted against authorizing the Gulf War and against the 2003 invasion of Iraq (before that was a fashionable position). After his vote against the war on October 11, 2002, just weeks before his reelection bid, he told his wife, "I just cost myself the election."
He was probably wrong. Polls showed Wellstone with a solid lead in the final stretch of the election, before he and his wife and daughter and four others died in a plane crash on October 25, 2002. At his giant memorial service broadcast on national TV, Senator Trent Lott and Governor Jesse Ventura were booed by some in the crowd. Republicans played this up and milked the incident in the media for all it was worth. It probably proved the difference in the election. Norm Coleman beat former Vice President Walter Mondale, who the DFL named as Wellstone's last-minute replacement on the ballot, by 2.2% of the vote.
The tragic death of everybody's hero and friend, Paul Wellstone, followed by the appropriation of his memorial service to elect his opponent, was pretty devastating for DFL faithful and a lot of Minnesotans. I can tell in his speeches and books that it's been devastating for Al Franken too, who was a good friend of Wellstone. It wasn't just that Wellstone was gone or that Coleman was in the Senate. It was that Coleman was in Wellstone's seat.
Franken by a Nose, a Very Small Nose
During the final leg of the campaign, when polls showed the race absolutely neck and neck, I was baffled that there was not more support from Team Obama or national Democrats in the Minnesota Senate race. If I'm correct, Barack Obama did not visit the state once during the campaign. I understand that Minnesota was a safe state for Obama, and maybe he wanted to focus on "expanding the playing field" to traditionally Republican states. But once it was clear Obama was going to win the whole thing by a good margin, why was there not a more aggressive push in downticket races? We were nearly saddled with six more years of solidly red Norm Coleman representing solidly blue Minnesota.
On January 5th, the Minnesota State Canvassing Board announced the final election recount results, showing Franken winning by 225 votes out of 2.9 million cast. The Coleman campaign almost immediately filed a lawsuit challenging the recount. Do I need to point out that the day after the election, when initial results showed Coleman with a slim lead, Coleman called on Franken to concede to spare the state the drama and "begin the healing process"? Why is Coleman not following his own advice?
I have not read anyone who seriously thinks Coleman's lawsuit will reverse the election results. (For kicks: intrade shows 95% odds that Franken wins in the end.) The main effect (and maybe even the goal) of the lawsuit is to keep the Senate from seating Al Franken for the first month or two of the Obama Administration, making the Senate slightly more red than it should be during those important weeks.
My only sorta-disappointment in the whole thing is that there was no single moment of victory. The understanding that Franken would win grew slowly throughout the recount process. But dang, this win feels good. There is some justice in the universe. Al Franken shoves Norm Coleman out of Paul Wellstone's seat. Minnesota has another good guy in the Senate.