Minnesota's new game: Who wants to be a Senator?

That’s not just a rhetorical question, either. In the present political environment, both in Minnesota and in Washington, who in their right mind would want Al Franken’s job? Mark Dayton released a statement this morning after Franken announced his intention to resign from the Senate laying out the timetable for his choice for an interim replacement:

The Star Tribune reports that Dayton has indicated that he will send his lieutenant governor to replace Franken for now. Tina Smith, Dayton’s chief of staff in his first term, is not expected to run for office again, which (as I noted earlier today) might create some real problems for the DFL:

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith is likely to be Gov. Mark Dayton’s choice to replace Sen. Al Franken if he resigns as expected, which would set in motion a cascade of job openings and reshape Minnesota politics.

A high-ranking Democratic source told the Star Tribune on Wednesday that Smith, a close ally to Dayton and longtime DFL insider, is his likeliest choice to replace Franken. Under that scenario, Smith would serve as a temporary replacement who would not run for the seat in a November 2018 special election.

The strategy of sending a caretaker to the Senate is probably for Dayton to avoid picking sides while playing kingmaker. Dayton’s not going to run again for office either, and certainly not the Senate, where he turned out to be so bad that Time Magazine once named him among the five worst Senators in Washington. So why not use his entirely legitimate authority to give someone who could win statewide a head start on doing so?

This also is no mere academic question. Democrats already had to defend 25 incumbent Senate seats in 2018, while Republicans only have to defend eight. This forces Democrats to defend a 26th seat, and their resources are already stretched thin as it is. A food fight in the state caucuses and primary over the nomination will exhaust the state DFL and might require national money to resolve — national money that simply may not materialize.

So who does want to enter the Frankenless food fight?

Meanwhile, a variety of party big names would likely consider running for the U.S. Senate seat now held by Franken: U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, who would be the state’s first black senator; two other U.S. representatives, Rep. Betty McCollum and Rep. Rick Nolan; or state Rep. Ilhan Omar, who would become the Senate’s first Somali-American member.

Several current candidates for governor might also reconsider and run for Franken’s seat, including U.S. Rep. Tim Walz or St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman. Attorney General Lori Swanson, also widely believed to be considering a run for governor, could run for the Senate instead.

With Dayton apparently deciding to cede control of the process, the primary will be wide open. Republicans probably hope that Ellison gets the nomination, as all of his radical baggage would make it difficult for him to win a statewide election. Betty McCollum might do a little better, but voters outside of the MN-05/MN-04 progressive bubble are not likely to be impressed with either House member. Nolan and Walz probably would do better as outstate Democrats … among the men, anyway.

Let’s be honest, though — the DFL will want a woman in that seat, especially after this scandal and the sexual-harassment scandal in the state legislature. Franken even hinted at that, using a feminine pronoun to describe his replacement in his Senate valediction this morning. Swanson and Rebecca Otto have won statewide elections before, and would be the most obvious choices to keep from having to use resources that would otherwise go to tougher red states in the 2018 Senate fight.

Dayton could ensure that by either convincing Smith to run, or by appointing Swanson or Otto up front. One has to wonder just how much pressure the DNC will put on Dayton to settle things immediately rather than punt to an open primary in a state that Donald Trump came very close to winning last year.