As he prepares to seek a second term next year, Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken appears to be on relatively firm ground as a candidate for re-election, a far cry from his status when first seeking the job.
Six years ago this month, Franken launched his U.S Senate campaign against then-U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican who in 2002 denied former Vice president Mondale a chance to fill the late Paul Wellstone's seat.
Franken who rose to national fame as a Saturday Night Live writer and performer, immediately faced questions about whether he was serious.
Republicans thought he would be a dream opponent, given the there was no shortage of material to use against the comedian and sharply partisan political commentator.
"I think it's a fair question," he said then, "and I think it's one I'm going to get asked a lot."
After a closely fought election that ended in a virtual draw, a recount declared Franken the winner by just 312 votes. Given the result, political pundits predicted that Franken would be an easy target for Republicans in 2014. But so far, it's not playing out that way.
Coleman was expected to be the first in line to challenge Franken. If not, political observers thought former Gov. Tim Pawlenty would be interested. But Coleman and Pawlenty have ruled out running, and with less than two years to go before the election, Franken is sitting on more than $1.2 million in campaign cash with no opponent in sight.
"Franken is in a surprisingly good position," said Kathryn Pearson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. "Franken looks harder to defeat than one would have predicted back in 2008."
In that campaign Republicans, and even some Democrats, tried to frame Franken as offensive, angry and polarizing.
A Coleman campaign ad that featured three "average Joes" contemplating Franken's candidacy at a bowling alley accused him of a propensity for "foul-mouthed attacks on anyone he disagrees with, tasteless sexist jokes and writing all that juicy porn."
Franken appears to have proven less polarizing than expected, although public opinion polls show him lagging behind U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the state's other Democratic Senator. In November, Klobuchar won a second term with an almost unheard of 65 percent of the vote.
"There is this sort of characterization of types of senators and one is show horse and one is work horse.. I always intended to be a work horse."
A Star Tribune poll taken late last summer measured Franken's approval rating at 52 percent. Another poll from last month came up with the same number. A KSTP-SurveyUSA poll released this month had Franken's approval rating at 47 percent, down from the others, but still 5 points higher than the 42 percent of the vote Franken won with in 2008.
Pearson said while Republicans might still dislike Franken, he has made inroads with other voters.
"There's no doubt that he has improved his standing among Minnesotans," Pearson said. "Republicans still are not big fans if you look at the polling but he holds ground with independents and moderates and he has actually much higher standing among Democrats than he did four years ago."
WINNING THE AUDIENCE
In a recent interview, Franken conceded that upon taking office he had a lot of work to do to win over some skeptics.
"I think that people had legitimate cause to think, 'OK, this guy, I mainly know him as someone who did comedy, and is he going to be serious?'" Franken said, noting that perceptions change.
"You know I have a lot of people come up to me and say, 'you're a lot better than I thought you were going to be,' " he said. "And I say, 'well, thanks for having had such low expectations.'"
While some Minnesotans apparently now view Franken in a more positive light, he has been something of a letdown to members of the national press corps who expected moments of levity from the famed comedian.
"We were expecting Stewart Smalley impersonations and one-liners and lots of great comedic zingers to the press," said Alex Bolton, who covers the Senate for the congressional newspaper, The Hill.
But that's not what Franken had in mind. Instead, Minnesota's junior senator has kept a low profile in Washington and doesn't talk to the national press.
Franken said he keeps a low profile by design, and notes that while he avoids the national press he regularly speaks with Minnesota reporters.
"There is this sort of characterization of types of Senators and one is show horse and one is work horse," Franken said. "I always intended to be a work horse. I was not there to grab press."
Franken has focused on health care, veterans and privacy issues in the Senate, where his voting record tracks closely with Klobuchar's. Both supported the Affordable Care Act, and both have voted to raise taxes on high-income earners.
But that's where the similarity ends, said Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Pat Shortridge.
"I think the notion that Al Franken's in [a] great position or Al Franken's a shoo-in is utterly ridiculous," said Shortridge, who still considers the first-term senator a polarizing figure. "Al Franken is no Amy Klobuchar in most Minnesotans' mind."
Franken said there is more partisanship in Washington than he expected on both sides of the political aisle. But he is quick to point to Republicans with whom he has sponsored legislation, citing a bill to provide service dogs for veterans that he worked on with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and a diabetes prevention measure with former U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana. He also authored a bill to regulate credit rating agencies with support of U.S. Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Roger Wicker of Mississippi.
Franken's crowning achievement so far was his push to include a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires health insurance companies to spend as much as 85 percent of the premiums they collect directly on health care. Franken said the medical loss ratio, as it's called, is common sense.
"That brings down the cost of health care because these companies have to be more efficient," he said.
According to September report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the requirement has already led to more than $1.1 billion in rebates for 13 million people. It will likely be a centerpiece of Franken's re-election campaign.
Fond of his time in the Senate, Franken said he has learned a great deal there and is too busy to worry about his re-election or which Republican might end up running against him.
"I really have no control over that," he said. "What I do have control over is what I do every day, and I feel if I do my work if I put my head down, use common sense, stick with my principles but one of my principles isn't don't compromise ever. If I do that, it will all take care of itself."
Pearson, the U of M political scientist, said Republicans would be smart to find a candidate soon, but the task will be difficult given that Gov. Mark Dayton also will be running for re-election next year.
"Republicans are looking for two outstanding candidates to run statewide, people who can raise the money, have the name recognition and get the campaigns together to defeat incumbents," she said. "It's a tough battle on both fronts."
Shortridge, however, said he's not concerned that Republicans don't yet have candidates vying for Franken's job. He said there's plenty of time and predicts quality candidates will emerge.
"I think Al Franken is a much more inviting target as well as the election year, 2014, a non-presidential year is much more inviting than a presidential year in Minnesota," Shortridge said.
In Minnesota, Democratic candidates typically do better in presidential election years than they do in off-year elections. It's easy to argue that Franken could use some help. In 2008 when Franken won by just 312 votes, then Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama beat Republican nominee John McCain in Minnesota by nearly 300,000 votes, or more than 10 percentage points.
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