Minnesota Senate race: Will the joke be on Al Franken this time?

The big question in the Minnesota Senate race is what happened to the real Al Franken?

As a conservative Republican, I do not travel in his circles, but I am always struck by the contrast between what made Al Franken great and the truly mediocre approach that he thinks will get him re-elected to his Senate seat.

Franken was a brilliant comedian who could carry a sketch and keep his audience in stitches, especially during his years on "Saturday Night Live." A person who could be that entertaining has to have an infectious and disarming comedic charm that lights up a room, entrances voters and endears his colleagues.

But candidate Franken is less like a belly laugh and more like a stomachache.


Famous people run for political office each cycle, and many win. After all, they usually have extensive financial resources, ready name identification and an unusual coalition of supporters who transcend ideology. But fans can be fickle, especially when a famous person needs to get knocked down a peg or two.

Mike McFadden could be the perfect Republican candidate to avenge Norm Coleman’s heartbreaking recount loss six years ago. McFadden is telegenic, youthful and already spending his own resources, which he earned from his successful years as an investment banker.

Republican strategists say the race is tighter than the 8-point lead Franken is averaging in the polls. If the Republican wave grows, the Land of 10,000 Lakes could be in for some precipitation.

The Franken strategy seems to be to take cover. Just as he is evading his funny past, he is also hard to find on the campaign trail. A recent story in The Atlantic detailed the trouble a sympathetic reporter had just trying to secure interview time with him. Policy questions were avoided, and lots of time was spent describing all the great food at the Minnesota State Fair.

Franken’s popularity in this blue state continues to be his biggest handicap. He won six years ago in a controversial recount by just 312 votes; most polls show him unable to break the all-important 50 percent mark; and his job approvals are unimpressive, to say the least.

Franken has been bold about one thing: his commitment to President Obama. He has voted with the president 99 percent of the time in the Senate. Obama and his major legislative achievement, ObamaCare, have been growing less and less popular, but Franken has done little to distance himself or explain his lockstep support of the president’s agenda.

Franken’s one solo act came just last month when he questioned the president’s failure to announce a military strategy in the wake of the atrocities inflicted by the Islamic State (ISIS). His comments were measured, tough and to some an indication of the growing seriousness of his political situation.

In Minnesota there is always the important question of tone in political contests. Voters there expect a certain level of civility. During Norm Coleman’s races, he always wrestled with the proper way to point out his opponent’s faults. Even recently, when asked about Franken, Coleman took the high road, saying, “The most positive thing that someone says about him is that he exceeds expectations.” That sure sounds like “Minnesota Nice” for “my senator is in the ineffective caucus.”

So what gives? Why would an outsized personality like Franken be such a dud in the Senate when the cameras are rolling and where everything is a show?

Perhaps his handlers are to blame. The theory goes something like this: Al Franken would never be taken seriously if he were thought of as a star hanging out with the jet set. So, instead, he tries to look and act like an insurance adjuster, just studying the case and getting his paperwork together.

In these cases there is always a debate among political consultants about whether the candidate is being overmanaged. Stories about Ronald Reagan are always operable in these circumstances. Reagan insiders are often quoted saying the president performed best when “Reagan was allowed to be Reagan.” He did not try to avoid his past as an entertainer; he embraced it. He did not bristle when someone made a Bedtime for Bonzo joke; he upped the ante with a wink and an even funnier quip.

Clearly, Franken is no Reagan, and that’s no joke.