Out of office, but Norm Coleman close to GOP's center of power

Norm Coleman
Former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-MN) speaks during a rally for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney February 1, 2012 in Eagan, Minnesota.
Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

For many politicians, the kind of day that former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman had on June 30, 2009, would have marked the end of their political careers.

After a lengthy recount that ended with him losing his bid for re-election by just a few hundred votes, Coleman, a Republican, conceded his hard-fought Senate race to Al Franken, a Democrat.

Three years later, Coleman's political star is again on the rise, although this time minus the shiny lapel pin all members of Congress are entitled to wear.

Coleman is chairman of the nonprofit American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund, two political groups that are heavily involved in defending the Republican majority in the U.S. House.

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Anyone who turns on the television these days is likely to see ads about the congressional race between incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack and his Democratic opponent Rick Nolan paid for by the American Action Network in support of Cravaack.

Based in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit has pumped tens of millions of dollars into congressional races across the country since 2010. The group, which plans to spend $1 million on Minnesota races this fall, has kept Coleman close to Republican Party leaders and could someday help him stage a political comeback of his own.

Norm Coleman concedes Senate race
In this file photo from June 2009, Norm Coleman holds a press conference at his St. Paul residence to concede the U.S. Senate race to his Democratic opponent Al Franken.
MPR Photo/Steve Mullis

Coleman works for the Washington lobbying firm Hogan Lovells, whose clients include Nissan, Occidental Petroleum and Xcel Energy. He serves as a foreign policy advisor to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney's campaign and often speaks for Romney on cable TV shows. Coleman also is co-chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which is trying hard this election year to woo Jewish voters.

In short, Coleman is as close to the center of power as is possible in today's Republican Party, a status he describes more modestly.

"There are many ways to serve," he said. "You don't have to have a portfolio, you don't have to be a member of the Senate or a mayor in order to have an impact on your party."

Founded by Coleman in 2009, the American Action Network is staffed by GOP campaign operatives. It spent more than $26 million to help Republicans sweep the 2010 midterm elections, largely by running negative ads against Democratic candidates.

But the group's ambitions extend beyond mere electoral politics. Coleman points to the closely related American Action Forum, which churns out policy positions on a range of topics.

"It's not just about getting someone to pull a lever" on Election Day, said Coleman. "If you go back to the creation of the network itself, it was believing America is a center-right country, and what do we have to make sure America moves in a center-right direction because we believe that's the best path for America."

In that spirit, he's also creating state-level spinoffs, including one in Minnesota that plans to actively campaign in favor of the Voter ID amendment on the ballot this fall.

"You don't have to be a member of the Senate or a mayor in order to have an impact on your party."

Former U.S. Rep. Vin Weber, who has known Coleman for years and helped engineer his switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party when Coleman was mayor of St. Paul, said the group could eventually make its biggest mark by broadening the Republican Party's base of support.

"They've probably taken the most active leadership role on trying to reach out to and build support for Republican policies in the Hispanic community," said Weber, who sits on the American Action Network's board.

The Republican Party has strong support from Cuban-Americans, although that is slipping, even in South Florida. It has had far less success wooing other Latino groups, particularly Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans. Polls show Latinos overwhelmingly support Democrats and President Obama.

Also, the American Action Network has drawn fire from critics who accuse the group of abusing federal election and tax laws by using its nonprofit status to allow donors to anonymously contribute unlimited amounts.

"By our calculation, it spent over 65 percent of its funds on political activities," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal-leaning watchdog group. "By any math that has been its primary purpose then, engaging in political activities."

Sloan's group has filed numerous complaints about the American Action Network with the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission. But Coleman notes that his groups' activities are allowed by the both agencies.

Coleman also said groups such as his are simply leveling a playing field that was initially weighted towards liberal groups.

"So for years when groups like the Sierra Club or the League of Conservation Voters were pounding candidates like me, nobody said a word," Coleman said. "But all of sudden, conservative groups start creating [non-profit organizations] and suddenly there's a crisis going on. I think there's too much money in politics, but I don't know the answer to that."

Many of the American Action Network's donors are secret, but tax filings and contributions mistakenly listed in other documents have revealed some. The trade association for the pharmaceutical industry, PhRMA, has given the network at least $4.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Similarly, Sloan's group revealed a $3 million donation from the health insurance firm Aetna. Like almost all conservative groups, the American Action Network strongly opposed the 2010 healthcare overhaul championed by President Barack Obama and passed by Congress.

"For a company like Aetna to give that much money, you know it's a business decision," Sloan said. "There's a bottom line reason they're doing it."

But with less than two months to go before Election Day, the complaints of Sloan and other watchdog groups will likely have little effect on the American Action Network and groups like it. That means they'll be able to put significant resources into House races across the country.

With the kind of influence Coleman's groups could wield on the election, University of Minnesota political scientist Kathryn Pearson thinks he's well positioned to make another play at elected office.

"He will have a network of donors that he's strengthened since his time in Congress, and he'll also be able to get people who he's helped to help him," Pearson said.

Coleman already has a good relationship with one of the GOP's most generous donors, casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who recently gave $5 million to the Congressional Leadership Fund run by Coleman.

When asked if he was interested in running for office again, Coleman, who still has a home in Minnesota and tries to spend half of every week in the state, didn't reject the idea.

"I don't think about it right now," he said. "I don't rule it out. I don't know what the future holds. I love public service."

After the November election, Coleman is likely to look closely at a rematch against Franken for another Senate term or possibly a challenge to Gov. Mark Dayton.

"I know that he will look at them closely and I know that if he decides to run, he'll have a lot of support," Weber said.