And now, a word on the midterms from Minnesota — where Republicans haven’t won a statewide election since Tim Pawlenty eked out a 22,000 vote win for re-election in 2006. Thanks to a deliberate strategy to keep his head down and stay serious, Al Franken has looked like a lock for re-election, helped in no small part by disarray in the state GOP organization. Mark Dayton has had a rockier time in Minnesota but also looked formidable in his re-election campaign. According to a new Survey USA poll, though, both incumbents find themselves below 50% in election polling, and Republican challengers within single digits:
Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken survived recounts when they won their first elections to the governor’s office and U.S. Senate. According to our latest KSTP/SurveyUSA poll, they might have to sweat our close races again in 2014. Franken clings to a six-point lead over his closest Republican challenger Mike McFadden, 48 percent to 42 percent. The poll has a margin of sampling error of +/- 3.1 percent.
“This poll is a cannon burst into the Minnesota U.S. Senate race,” says political science professor Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota Humphrey Institute. Jacobs says if the race remains close it will attract millions in outside campaign money. Franken has a larger lead over another potential challenger, state Representative Jim Abeler. Franken leads Abeler by nine points, 48 percent to 39 percent. “The fact that even Jim Abeler is only nine points behind Al Franken indicates there appears to be a solid base of opposition to Al Franken,” says Jacobs.
Governor Dayton also faces a potentially close re-election bid. He also leads his nearest competitor by just six points. The GOP-endorsed candidate for governor, Jeff Johnson, trails Dayton 46% to 40%. Dayton leads former House Speaker Kurt Zellers by seven points, 46 percent to 39 percent. Former House Minority Leader Marty Seifert is eight points back (46 percent-38 percent) and businessman Scott Honour is ten points back (47 percent-37 percent).
Franken only got 43% in a three-way race in 2008, winning a contested recount and challenge over then-incumbent Norm Coleman. He only got that close by being on the same ticket as Barack Obama in the presidential election. (Dayton’s recount was much less controversial and mainly pointless, as he had a 9,000 vote lead in his three-way race in 2010.) Franken was not a good campaigner in 2008, although he wasn’t terrible, and underperformed Obama by a wide margin.
Also, in neither race has the GOP completely unified behind a single candidate. McFadden and Johnson won the endorsements at the party convention a couple of weeks ago, but Minnesota also has a primary in August to settle the nominations. McFadden will only face token opposition in the primary, as the party mostly coalesced around his candidacy, but the gubernatorial nomination will remain contentious through the primary. If neither Franken nor Dayton can get to 50% against fractured opposition now, they will have a tougher time when Republicans close ranks after the primary.
Jacobs makes a particularly good point about the Senate race. Until recently, it hadn’t appeared on watch lists for potential Republican pickups for reasons outlined in my intro. If Franken is this vulnerable and Obama’s numbers continue to erode, that could change — and McFadden might be able to nationalize the Minnesota race and get much more resources than he can raise otherwise. That will force Democrats to open another front on defense in a cycle in which they can ill afford to dilute their impact in other races.
It’s still an uphill climb in Minnesota to retire Franken, but it’s not impossible. McFadden looks like a competent campaigner and above-average fundraiser, which is important, and Franken is no Amy Klobuchar in terms of Minnesota tradition either. Survey USA has a pretty good track record in polling the state, but we’ll see soon enough whether this is an outlier — or a harbinger of a massive midterm sweep.
Update: Gary Gross calls this a “defining moment”:
Let’s put this more succinctly. It isn’t just that there’s a “solid base of opposition to Al Franken.” It’s that lots of people haven’t seen Franken make a difference in Washington, DC. It’s like they know he’s there but the average Minnesotan, not the political activists, couldn’t make a list of Franken’s accomplishments. …
Gov. Dayton and Sen. Franken are in the fight for their political lives. Whether they survive depends partly on the quality of their campaigns and partly on the amount of outside money spent. In 2010, ABM [a progressive group run by Dayton’s wealthy ex-wife — Ed] spent tons of money smearing Tom Emmer. This time, they’ll have to decide which races to spend money on. It’ll be difficult for them to help Gov. Dayton and Sen. Franken while trying to hold onto the majority in the Minnesota House of Representatives.