On Valentine's Day, humorist Al Franken announced that he would run for the Minnesota Senate seat currently held by Republican Norm Coleman. The announcement was immediately greeted by cheers from Republicans and jeers from liberal pundits, who dismissed Mr. Franken as a comedy candidate, with no experience and outlandish political views that would provide Mr. Coleman with an easy ride to reelection.
Developments since then, however, make it clear that Mr. Franken's candidacy is no joke.
To be sure, Mr. Franken won't win the Democratic nomination unchallenged. Minnesota trial attorney Mike Ciresi, who ran against the former senator from Minnesota, Mark Dayton, in the 2000 Democratic primary, is also considering a run. Nonetheless, Mr. Franken appears committed to running. His campaign Web site lists several major upcoming appearances and urges supporters to volunteer, host low-level fundraisers, and donate online.
Mr. Coleman is a savvy politician who is better liked than not. A recent Rasmussen poll showed that 51% of voters have a favorable opinion of him, compared to only 42% with an unfavorable view. But Mr. Franken has been gaining ground on him quickly. The same Rasmussen poll showed Mr. Coleman leading Mr. Franken by just 10 percentage points, with 46% favoring Mr. Coleman and 36% favoring Mr. Franken. A similar poll, conducted just weeks before the Rasmussen survey, showed Mr. Franken battling a 22-point deficit.
To conservatives who have grown accustomed to loathing Mr. Franken, due to his liberal persona honed on Air America, the idea that he could prove a viable candidate is almost beyond belief. But conservatives would be ill-advised to write off Mr. Franken.
Certainly, Mr. Franken's comments on-air could well prove his undoing as a candidate - as could his association with the oft-invoked "Hollywood liberal elite." Mr. Franken's PAC has received donations from Barbra Streisand and Larry David, and earlier this month, Linda Ronstadt hosted a fundraiser for him, at which Robin Williams performed. All of this could make great fodder for attacks from Mr. Coleman's campaign.
What's more, Mr. Franken's political views could also prove unpopular. A 2006 Minnesota Senate exit poll conducted by CNN showed that just 25% of Minnesota voters describe themselves as "liberal" (the political moniker that Mr. Franken embraces), whereas 46% consider themselves "moderates" (as Mr. Coleman does), and 30% call themselves "conservative" (and it would be hard to see them voting for Mr. Franken). Thus far, Mr. Franken has been campaigning on the themes of universal health care, renewable energy and prompt redeployment (read: withdrawal) of forces from Iraq - issues that will sit well with the Democratic base, but are less likely to be as popular with the electorate at large.
However, what Mr. Franken lacks in easy and immediate widespread appeal, he may be able to make up for via a few key strengths.
First of all, Minnesota's Democratic base will be eager to put 110% into defeating Mr. Coleman. He is, after all, an ex-Democrat who is reviled by his former party for being an "opportunist" who switched his affiliation in order to get ahead, politically.
Secondly, Mr. Coleman is also seen as the undeserving beneficiary of the morbid windfall that was the untimely death of Senator Wellstone in 2002. Running in 2002 against the former vice president, Walter Mondale, Mr. Coleman had an easier ride than he otherwise would have — and Democrats will be gunning for revenge this time around.
Mr. Franken may just be the man to exact that revenge in 2008, if only because he is likely to be able to raise more money, and raise it faster, than his potential primary rival Mr. Ciresi. Mr. Coleman had $1.8 million on hand at the end of 2006. Thus, having a recognizable candidate, with high name ID, who can raise money quickly, will be of the utmost importance for Democrats. Mr. Ciresi may be able to tap into the trial lawyers funding network, but Mr. Franken has Hollywood — plus a large swathe of the netroots.
Lastly, some Minnesota insiders feel that Mr. Franken has the populist touch that seems to go over so well in Minnesota (think Jesse Ventura).
As much as the prospect of candidate Franken may have generated derision in Republican circles at the outset, the closer we get to the 2008 election, the less funny a Franken candidacy seems to some in the GOP fold.
Mr. Coleman could find his re-election campaign to be far from laugh-a-minute.