Al Franken Is Starting to Look Like Ollie North

The 1994 midterm election is justly recalled as the strongest ever for the Republican Party. Bill Clinton, elected to the presidency two years earlier, had spent the first half of his term giving voters reason to regret the faith they’d placed in him. Independents felt let down, Republicans were openly hostile (and unusually unified in their opposition to him) and Democrats were just underwhelmed. On Election Day, the G.O.P. won just about everything there was to win – with one glaring exception.

That would be in Virginia, a state where – on paper – the G.O.P. had no excuse for losing that year’s Senate race. The incumbent, Democratic first-termer Charles Robb, had in just six years amassed a rap sheet that would have made him electoral poison in any state, most of all conservative Virginia. There was a protracted federal investigation into his aides’ illegal wiretapping of a political rival’s phone calls (Robb himself expected to be indicted for this, though he ultimately wasn’t), and lurid accusations that – after presenting himself for years as a square-jawed military and family man – he’d cheated on his wife (former first daughter Lynda Bird Johnson) with a Playboy model and had frequented parties with equal amounts of free drugs and loose women.

And yet Robb still managed to win reelection by three points. The reason was simple. The Republicans nominated just about the only man in the state whom Robb was actually capable of beating: Oliver North.

Now, 14 years later, it’s the Democrats of Minnesota who seem poised to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in just the same style.

Norm Coleman, a Republican who was elected to the Senate in something of a fluke in 2002, is up for reelection. The state, which has voted Democratic in the last eight presidential elections (the longest current streak in the nation), played footsy with the G.O.P. for a few years earlier this decade but has lately rejected Bush-ism and returned to its Democratic roots. The party overwhelmingly won an open Senate seat in 2006 and Barack Obama has enjoyed mostly robust leads in polling.

Meanwhile, Coleman, whose narrow ’02 win owed itself to that year’s national G.O.P. tide and the peculiar politics surrounding the funeral of Paul Wellstone (which Democrats were accused of turning into a political rally), has suffered for his close association with George W. Bush, the Iraq war and the national Republican Party. He’s hardly a beloved figure in Minnesota; his approval ratings have sagged for several years now; and a Democratic tide every bit as powerful as the one seen in 2006 is shaping up at the Congressional level this fall. In a year when they are poised to compete in some of the most reliably Republican areas in the country, Coleman’s seat should be one of the ripest pickup opportunities on the board for Democrats.

And yet, barely more than three months from the finish line, Coleman is poised to buck the same odds that Robb did in 1994 – and he owes it all to Minnesota’s Democrats, who have, just like Virginia’s Republican 14 years ago, picked the one candidate capable of squandering the enormous built-in advantages that their party enjoys.

That would be Al Franken, the former Saturday Night Live writer and performer and Air America host, who returned to his native Minnesota a few years ago with an eye on Coleman’s Senate seat. As a public figure, Franken is proving to be about as polarizing as North – although, obviously, for very different reasons. (Franken has never stood accused of coordinating the illicit sale of weapons to Iran, transferring the resulting profits to an illegal war in Central America, or even of lying to Congress).

But Franken has attracted the same intense passion from his party’s left-wing base that North generated from conservatives. To the left, Franken is something of a folk hero for his scathing mockery of the right, beginning 12 years ago with his best-seller Rush Limbaugh Is a Big, Fat Idiot. Other books (and countless media appearances and his own radio show) followed, and in the years since, the party’s grass-roots activists – in Minnesota and nationally – have come to rely on Franken for pointed, unsparing derision of the right. This has given him a strong base of political and financial support.

To the right, of course, this makes Franken an obnoxious limousine liberal, a symbol of the condescension and cultural elitism that, they believe, defines the left and the Democratic Party. In a year when Republicans aren’t motivated about much, Minnesota’s conservatives are salivating over the prospect of handing Franken a defeat – in the same way that liberals in Virginia, most of whom cared little for Robb, found reason to work overtime when faced with the prospect of a Senator North in ’94.

But, again like North, Franken’s problems go much further than the resentment he has stirred on the other side of the aisle. Concerns about his own background and his own style have made him potentially toxic to a good chunk of independent voters – the very voters who backed Coleman in ’02 but who are ready to throw him (and just about every Republican) out in 2008. Because of his celebrity, the race has turned into as much a referendum on Franken as it is on Coleman.

Specifically, Franken has been on the defensive about whether his background as a comedian is a sufficient qualification for public office and has been compelled to explain and apologize for some of his more tasteless past writings (including an essay that appeared in Playboy). Plus, he was hit with a scandal involving unpaid taxes in several states. His backers can dismiss the tax story as overblown (it seemed a mostly innocent mistake) and the controversy about his jokes as trivial, but it has all had – and continues to have – a distracting and deleterious effect on his candidacy. And what the left sees as a sharp wit can, even to non-Republicans, come off as simply smug.

All Democrats needed in Minnesota was a generic candidate who would keep the public’s attention on Coleman and his shortcomings. Instead, they are offering up someone who attracts more press attention than the incumbent, and not always for good reasons. The effect is hardly a surprise: Coleman has built leads of 10, 12, 13 and 15 points in the most recent polls and national forecasters now universally portray the race as an uphill climb for the Democrats. (There are two recent surveys from Rasmussen that have the race close, but they appear to be the outliers.)

And this brings us to another similarity to Virginia ’94: There were some members of Franken’s own party, just like there were some members of North’s, who saw this coming and who urged their party to take a more pragmatic course.

Mike Ciresi, a lawyer who played a key role in Minnesota’s suit against Big Tobacco last decade, originally planned to challenge Franken for the Democratic nomination. He was less glamorous than Franken, his backers admitted, but much more likely to win the seat against Coleman. Similarly, Jim Miller, a former Reagan administration official, challenged North for the G.O.P. nod in ’94, making basically the same argument. In both cases, though, the no-compromise passion of the base won out: Miller lost to North at a convention, and Ciresi withdrew before Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party convention.

Some observers said afterward that North would have won in 1994 were it not for the presence of a third general-election candidate, Marshall Coleman, a moderate Republican who ran as an independent. (A fourth candidate, former Democratic Governor Doug Wilder, dropped out a month before the election, also probably boosting Robb.) Coleman won 11 percent in November, but whether his backers would have otherwise voted en masse for North is a very disputable question. North was that radioactive. More likely, Coleman’s presence affected both candidates about equally.

Similarly, there is a third candidate in Minnesota this year: Dean Barkley, who is most famous for serving (via Jesse Ventura’s appointment) as an interim senator for two months after Wellstone’s death in ’02. One recent poll gave Barkley eight percent – seemingly hurting both candidates about the same.

Minnesotans know Norm Coleman and don’t like him that much. If they played it smart, that alone would have virtually guaranteed Democrats a win this fall. But they’ve gone with their hearts instead, and – just like Virginia’s Republicans in 1994 – will probably have to live with a senator they can’t stand for six more years because of it. Al Franken Is Starting to Look Like Ollie North