How did comedian Al Franken win a Senate seat?
After a mere 545 days, the 2008 election is finally over. It didn’t end when Barack Obama took the (temporarily) mangled oath of office — it ended on Tuesday, June 30th of 2009 when Republican Norm Coleman gave a concession speech — the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that Al Franken earned more votes than Norm Coleman, and will now take his place in the hallowed halls of the United States Senate.
Al Franken, the comedian best known for his work on the variety show Saturday Night Live, famously refused Norm Coleman’s call for him to concede on election night last November. Franken believed, quite rightly as it turns out, that he won the election by the slimmest of margins, and chose to begin the difficult process of vote counting and legal battles to prove his victory. Franken’s fight has now stretched into its eighth month and ended in his victory.
This victory for Franken is huge for the Democrats. With the addition of Franken, the Democrats hold 60 Senate seats. This is a critical number in the Senate, needed to overcome any potential Republican filibuster attempts. As early as next week, Al Franken will take his seat in the Senate and give his party the kind of majority not seen in the Senate in over thirty years. In fact, to find a political party with a filibuster proof majority in the Senate as well as control of the Executive branch you’d have to go back some 70 years.
Norm Coleman, visibly angry, conceded the election within hours of the unanimous Minnesota Supreme Court ruling handed down Tuesday. The ruling found that Franken — who was motivated into politics through his attacks on conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh — shall be certified the winner of the Senate race. How close was the battle between Coleman and Franken? The Senate seat was won by just 312 votes out of a total of 2.9 million votes cast.
With a margin that slim, Coleman could have carried this fight into the federal courts, though political pundits say it is unlikely that the federal court would have overturned the lower court’s ruling. According to Coleman: “The court has spoken.” Coleman, in his concession, said he had phoned to congratulate Franken and that he has “no regrets” about the election drama. There were murmurs from the press about a potential run for governor in 2010, though Coleman didn’t answer these questions.
To hear Franken tell it, he isn’t even considering the impact of his victory on the Democratic party. “The way I see it, I’m not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic senator, I’m going to Washington to be the second senator from Minnesota.” Humble words from a man who has given his party just what it wanted — power in the white house, and almost complete power in the legislative branch.
This all started eight months ago. When Norm Coleman last checked the ballot totals on election night, he found himself ahead by a slim margin — a few hundred votes — and decided to call on Franken to concede defeat. Famously, Franken refused to do so, perhaps armed with the knowledge that such a thin victory would trigger an automatic recount. Once the recount was completed, it turns out that Franken was technically ahead by 225 votes. As expected, Norm Coleman then challenged the recount results, and he is probably kicking himself for doing that. A review of the recount by three judges found that not only did Franken win, he won by a few more then 225 votes. The final count turned out to be 312.
The drama continued, even though the votes had been “counted” three times over. Norm Coleman appealed his case to the state’s highest court. Coleman’s argument? Election officials throughout Minnesota weren’t consistent in their instructions to voters, including inconsistencies in absentee ballot and ballot counting. According to Coleman, these election troubles literally robbed thousands of people of their vote. Unfortunately for Coleman, this was the last stop. Minnesota’s highest court voted 5-0 that there was “no reason to apply a more lenient standard in judging absentees”.
For Al Franken, the race has been excruciating. Franken, a first time politician, declared his candidacy for the Senate over two years ago. This election wasn’t cheap, as Franken and Coleman racked up over $50 million in fees related to their campaigns. To put that number in perspective, when Coleman won the seat in the previous election, both parties spent a combined $22 million, less than half what was spent these past two years.
You could make the argument that Al Franken was prepared for this victory — after all, Franken has ensure himself a quick transition to office by appointing a “staff in waiting”. Norm Coleman kept an even lower profile in the months since the election, and it is unknown if he had a similar “shadow staff”. We know that Franken hired a ton of people, from a chief of staff all the way down to communications staffers. According to a statement released Tuesday, “[the Franken campaign] have been doing a lot. I’ve been going back and forth to Washington. We’ve been using this time, I think, pretty productively.”
Al Franken will take an immediate spot on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a role that will shove him directly into the thick of DC politics, as he is part of a committee whose mission it is to hold confirmation hearings over President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Speaking about Sotomayor, Franken told National Public Radio on Wednesday morning that he wants to ask the candidate about “her views on campaign finance reform”.
Al Franken, who is 58, often played goofy characters during the 1980s on Saturday Night Live. In sketches aimed at mocking politicians, Franken was astute. However, his best known character may be the sickly sweet motivational speaker Stuart Smalley. His “political” career seems to have taken off in the 1990s with several books published to point out the flaws in the Republican party’s plans for the country, and specifically attacking Republican radio host Rush Limbaugh. Franken later earned a huge following on his own radio show as part of the Air America network.