Franken going unchallenged in MN?

Yesterday, National Journal’s Michael Catalini gave a rather depressing look at the prospects so far for Republicans in Minnesota’s 2014 Senate race, when Al Franken will defend his seat for the first time — and so far, no one has volunteered to challenge him.  Norm Coleman, who lost the seat by 312 votes in 2008 after a months-long recount and challenge, has firmly declared himself uninterested in another election:

After winning election by the narrowest of margins in 2008, Sen. Al Franken looked like one of the GOP’s most inviting Senate targets in 2014.  But instead, the party is facing the reality that Franken is proving to be a much more resilient opponent than expected, and his uncontroversial first term is raising doubts about whether Republicans can even recruit a first-tier candidate against the former Saturday Night Live funnyman.

“You can’t play handball in an open field. At this point there’s been no candidate,” said former GOP Sen. Norm Coleman, who lost to Franken in the 2008 race. “He’s been pretty much invisible. In that sense he hasn’t created a lot of enemies. I don’t know if that’s his strategy, but it’s a pretty good strategy if it is.”

The list of potential, formidable candidates is short.  Coleman, in an interview with National Journal, categorically said he wasn’t going to run for the Senate in 2014, denying the GOP one of its best-known possible challengers. Rep. Erik Paulsen, a popular House member from the Twin Cities suburbs, telegraphed his own hesitance about jumping into the Senate race on a local radio show. Coleman touted Rep. John Kline, another swing-district Republican, but he has passed up previous statewide bids in favor of building up tenure in the House. And Rep. Michele Bachmann, who would be formidable in a primary, would be the Democrats’ dream challenger, given her high unfavorables even back home. She barely won re-election in a solidly-Republican House district in 2012.

What’s clear is that Minnesota Republicans are wary of jumping head first into the contest, despite the obvious opportunities against Franken.

In order to understand this, one has to understand the ground game of the state GOP, which has been a total disaster until recently.  The state organization more or less collapsed financially in 2011, after having succeeded in the midterms in taking control of the legislature but losing all the statewide constitutional offices.  In the 2012 cycle, Ron Paul followers won key offices in local party structures, many of whom have failed to engage much afterward.  The state GOP has worked hard over the past year to put its house in order, but it still has a lot of work to do to catch up to the DFL, and not too much time in which to do it.

Furthermore, the experience of running against Amy Klobuchar in 2012 will probably cool most potential Republican candidates from tossing their hats in the ring against Franken.  Klobuchar raised prodigious amounts of money and buried Kurt Bills by more than 2-1 in the general election.  That margin went far beyond Barack Obama’s support in the state, even though Klobuchar — like Franken — has kept a very low profile in Washington, mainly notable only for following Obama’s lead in the Senate.  Franken has succeeded in following Klobuchar’s strategy, and unlike Coleman, I am certain that it’s deliberate.

However, there are reasons to hope for a better outcome in 2014.  First, Obama won’t be on the ticket, although all of the state’s constitutional offices will be.  Second-term midterms tend to be tough on presidents, and unless hiring and economic activity pick up soon, that will almost certainly be the case for Obama.  Second, the more onerous provisions of ObamaCare will be in effect by that time, especially the medical-device taxes that will hammer Minnesota businesses.  Franken and Klobuchar have tried to reverse them, but they voted to impose them in the first place.  Hopefully by that time the state GOP will have righted their own organizational ship and can focus on producing better candidates and ground game efforts.

Still, unless Franken makes a fool out of himself, he’s going to have the advantage, especially against less-well-known Republicans.  The best chance for beating Franken in 2014 may be the last Republican to win a state-wide election in Minnesota — Tim Pawlenty.  He built the kind of national reach he’d need to match Franken’s fundraising (Frabnken already has $1.3 million COH), and Republicans will need to nationalize this race to make up for the shortcomings of the state Republican organization.  He’s also laying low at the moment, but that may be a deliberate strategy, too.