Just days after being sworn into the U.S. Senate, Tina Smith is on a crash course to find her way in the chamber and find time for a 10-month campaign sprint toward a special election to keep her new job.
The Minnesota Democrat's first weekend back home after replacing Al Franken was a whirlwind of appearances, starting at a suburban manufacturer to talk job training, then up north to Duluth and the Iron Range region to highlight illegal steel dumping, then back to her hometown of Minneapolis.
It's just the start of a nonstop juggling game Smith will need to master to win the November special election against a yet-to-be-determined Republican, balancing the demands of her new job in Washington while crisscrossing the state to increase her visibility and raise more than $10 million for the campaign.
Unlike her fellow new freshman, Alabama Democratic Sen. Doug Jones, Smith doesn't have nearly three years to fundraise and campaign. That meant Friday's visit to the Minneapolis suburb of Stacy to tour a manufacturing plant was a mix of work and campaign politics — as nearly every day on her calendar will be until Nov. 6.
"My No. 1 priority is to be the best senator that I can be. That is my job. It certainly is a challenge," she said of the schedule she'll have to keep.
"But it's a challenge that I'm up for."
Smith's ascension from little-known lieutenant governor to national news story was set in motion by allegations of sexual misconduct that pushed out Franken.
In her first week, Smith dealt with rudimentary paperwork for the Senate and finding a place to live in Washington — a process she called "apartment speed dating." She is seeking prized committee assignments, including a spot on the Senate Agriculture Committee ahead of an expected push for a new farm bill this year. Rather than build up a 50-person office from the ground, Smith carried over most of Franken's staff.
Smith said she views her new job as a continuation of her three years as lieutenant governor.
As Gov. Mark Dayton's second-in-command, Smith was the face of expanding broadband internet service into Minnesota's rural pockets. She plans to push to increase early childhood education options — a marquee issue during her time in Dayton's administration — and will press a familiar Democratic goal of raising income taxes on the nation's wealthiest earners in a Congress that just passed a tax cuts package.
As for the special election, the stakes are high for both Democrats and Republicans. While Democrats are forced to defend an unexpectedly open seat in Minnesota, Republicans see a chance to add to their narrow Senate majority.
Smith is no stranger to campaigns, having been integral to Dayton's two gubernatorial victories. She's not even a stranger to short campaigns, having run Vice President Walter Mondale's unsuccessful six-day Senate run when he replaced Sen. Paul Wellstone on the ballot following Wellstone's death in a 2002 plane crash.
Minnesota's Democratic party chair Ken Martin said Smith is rightly focused on getting settled in the Senate, but her years of experience running campaigns — not to mention chairing Dayton's transition as governor in 2011 — will allow her to scale up on both sides quickly.
"This is one of the huge advantages she has: Tina has spent a lot of time over the years helping candidates and campaigns," he said. "We're already raising money, we're hiring staff and we're putting together the pieces to make sure that her campaign is ready for this 10-month sprint."
Martin expects she'll get an extra hand from the man who appointed her to the seat, including the fundraising apparatus that helped Dayton to become the first Democrat to win the governor's office in nearly 25 years.
No Democrats have emerged to challenge Smith for the party's nod. What Republican she may face in November is unclear. State Sen. Karin Housley already launched a campaign. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann says she's considering a run. Top Republicans want former Gov. Tim Pawlenty to get in the race.
Although holding the seat gives Smith some needed name recognition ahead of the election, it also keeps her tied to Washington while her challengers can spend that time campaigning in Minnesota.
"Our Republican candidate will be aggressively talking to voters about their vision for Minnesota," state Republican Party chair Jennifer Carnahan said in a statement.