Minnesota DFL, GOP see political opportunity in Obama visit

Barack Obama, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar
President Barack Obama shares a laugh with Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., left, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., center, in Minneapolis, June 2012.
Genevieve Ross/AP, file

Transportation tops the agenda today as President Barack Obama visits Minnesota. But with the president's popularity here at an all time low, his presence may hurt Democrats at the polls in November.

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Republicans are tying DFLers to the president's struggles — much like Democrats did to Republicans in 2008.

In that election, DFL candidate Al Franken played up Republican Sen. Norm Coleman's close ties to President George Bush. Franken attacked the unpopular Bush over the war in Iraq almost as much as he attacked Coleman. Franken won the election by a thin margin.

Six years later, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Keith Downey says the GOP can leverage unhappiness with Obama to bolster campaigns against DFLers.

The president's visit to St. Paul's Union Station is a good time to highlight Franken's lock-step support for the national Democratic agenda, he said.

"When Minnesotans look at what they want from their U.S. senator, they want leadership, and they want leadership for our state on the big issues of the day: the economy, the budget, foreign affairs. They're not seeing that leadership from Al Franken," Downey said.

"Frankly what they're seeing is somebody who's a follower, who basically does what (Senate Majority Leader) Harry Reid and the Obama administration want him to do," he added.

Minnesotans have a much more favorable opinion of Franken's job performance than Obama's.

A Star Tribune poll published last week showed 55 percent of Minnesotans approve of the job Franken is doing. Just 43 percent feel the same way about Obama — a surprising gap given that Franken voted with Obama 100 percent of the time last year, according to Congressional Quarterly.

Franken's voting record makes it easy for Republicans to link him to Obama, said Larry Sabato with the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

"The difference between Franken and Coleman is that Coleman was associated with an administration that had never carried Minnesota and was never popular at all in Minnesota," Sabato said. "Obama has been reasonably popular and has carried Minnesota twice."

And although Obama's approval rating among Minnesotans has slipped, he is way ahead of George W. Bush's 25 percent Minnesota approval rating at about the same time in the 2008 election cycle.

"If the president is unpopular, that can tarnish your image as an elected official, but it's a double edged sword — having the president come in to campaign for you is really good financially for a campaign and it certainly energizes your base," said Republican strategist Cullen Sheehan, who ran Coleman's 2008 campaign and remembers conversations about the risks of Coleman standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush.

Obama remains an asset to Minnesota Democrats, not a liability who stands to hurt them this fall, said DFL Party Chairman Ken Martin.

"The president won both times he ran here by pretty wide margins. He has a lot of support in this state as well as in the upper Midwest, and I think he will be able to help all of our candidates, not only Sen. Franken, but candidates for the Legislative seats as well as our congressional seats."

Martin said he hopes the president will be a frequent visitor to Minnesota between now and November's elections.

That said, it's unclear how many Minnesota politicians will appear with Obama today. Gov. Mark Dayton is still recovering from hip surgery and won't be there. Neither will several members of Minnesota's congressional delegation who say they need to remain in Washington because Congress is in session.

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