Franken, re-election campaign on horizon, attracts few challengers so far

Sen. Al Franken
DFL U.S. Sen. Al Franken, right, holds a roundtable on senior issues in Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

In 2008, Al Franken beat Republican Sen. Norm Coleman by 312 votes -- a margin so slim that pundits predicted a bruising re-election fight for Franken even before the recount was done.

Five years later, as DFL Sen. Franken's re-election race nears, the only Republicans challenging him so far are a businessman with no political experience and a state lawmaker best known for bucking his party.

Both those candidates, though, say their messages will resonate with Minnesotans.

ABELER OUT TO CHANGE WASHINGTON

State Rep. Jim Abeler, a chiropractor from Anoka, doesn't have the polished political talking points of many Senate candidates. That's part of his appeal -- he's branding himself as a candidate who can change Washington.

When people express doubt, Abeler points to his record in the Legislature. He says he cut billions from the state's health and human services budget without harming vulnerable people. He also backed a gas tax increase in 2008, against the wishes of fellow Republicans.

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State Rep. Jim Abeler
Republican state Rep. Jim Abeler, left, speaks with Steve Calvin of Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Tom Scheck

"I'm 59 years old. I could have just chosen to run one more term (as a state representative) or a few more terms and coasted through a very easy re-election," he told supporters at a recent fundraiser. "But I looked in the mirror and I thought, 'it's my time to do this.' "

Abeler's record comes with drawbacks. Republicans still bristle at his support for the gas tax hike. Democrats say he's aligned with HMOs and made unnecessary spending cuts instead of raising taxes.

Abeler says he won't support higher taxes on the federal level and suggested his expertise in health care will help streamline the federal system.

Money may be his biggest hurdle. He said he needs to raise $500,000 quickly in order to be taken seriously by party leaders.

McFADDEN TOUTS BUSINESS ACUMEN

While Abeler is working to scratch together the money at smaller fundraisers, Mike McFadden, the other Republican in the race, has already surpassed Abeler's goal, raising more than $700,000 in 30 days this spring.

The former chief executive of Minneapolis investment bank Lazard Middle Market, McFadden says his campaign will focus on education, reducing the federal deficit and improving the economy. Eliminating many federal regulations and simplifying the tax code will bring confidence to business leaders, the Sunfish Lake businessman adds.

Mike McFadden
Republican businessman Mike McFadden announces that he will run against Democratic Sen. Al Franken in 2014 during a news conference Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at the State Capitol.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

McFadden also believes entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare need an overhaul to stay viable for future generations.

"There's a lack of confidence in the direction of the government and as a result businesses are sitting on the sideline," he said.

McFadden has never run for office before and has not made many public appearances since he announced his campaign in May.

Democrats say McFadden should be unelectable because his business deals have cost Minnesotans jobs. McFadden says his firm was in the business of rescuing floundering companies and never made final employment decisions.

FRANKEN MUM, FOR NOW

As for Al Franken, he's saying little about the campaign.

"The election is well over a year away and I think people sent me to Washington to get results, so that's what I'm focused on," said Franken, who's been holding meetings in Minnesota on education, immigration and issues facing senior citizens. Franken declined to offer an analysis of his Republican opponents.

"They're the ones who are going to decide which candidate they want to run against me," Franken said. "That will work itself out. I'm really focused on my job."

Still, Franken is using Republican comments that he's a top target in fundraising solicitations. He finished the last quarter with roughly $3 million in the bank.

At least one more Republican is also thinking about challenging Franken. State Sen. Julianne Ortman, R-Chanhassen, says she'll make a final decision by the end of summer.