Finale in MN? Dayton picks Smith to fill Franken's seat

Was a Minnesotan the biggest loser in last night’s election in Alabama? Al Franken had pledged to resign from the Senate under pressure from his Democratic colleagues but had never specified a date. Speculation arose that Franken might rescind his resignation if Republicans seated Roy Moore. Aaaaand … it now looks like Franken is stuck with Plan A after Doug Jones’ win last night.

Governor Mark Dayton will proceed with his own Plan A, appointing Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to Franken’s seat. Smith has suddenly discovered enough political ambition to run for the special election next year, too:

Gov. Mark Dayton will appoint Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to replace Sen. Al Franken as Minnesota’s next U.S. senator, according to two high-level Democratic sources with knowledge of the decision.

Dayton will name Smith as his choice at a Wednesday morning news conference, and she plans to run for the seat in a 2018 special election, the sources said.

Smith was clearly Dayton’s favorite all along, but her lack of political ambition almost aced her out of the running. Dayton appeared ready to appoint her as a neutral DFL caretaker and allow the party to hold an open primary to determine the 2018/2020 nominee. Chuck Schumer, facing a 26/8 imbalance in seats to defend next year, wanted a nomination that would resolve it without an open primary. Smith’s decision to run for office next year and again in 2020 if successful shows that Schumer won the argument, forcing Dayton into the role of kingmaker. Dayton had another term for it in his presser this morning:

That doesn’t mean that Smith will get a pass entirely next year. She’ll run as an incumbent with the advantages that confers, but political ambitions in Minnesota have very few outlets. Other DFL figures may not want to wait for either Smith or Amy Klobuchar to retire, so 2018 is the window that some simply can’t resist — or at least that’s what the Strib thought this morning:

The special election is expected to draw contenders on both sides. Even with Smith’s selection, DFL U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison is mulling the race, a source close to Ellison said last week. Former GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty is being wooed by Republicans.

The winner of the 2018 election will be expected to run again for the full six-year term in 2020.

Ellison turned around and endorsed Smith for the 2018 nomination, however:

The idea that Ellison would get a boost from Franken’s departure simply ignores realities on the ground in Minnesota. Ellison isn’t going to win a statewide general election, and it’s doubtful that he’d win a statewide primary unless he was the only candidate running, and even Ellison seems to realize this. While Minnesota is a fairly blue state, Ellison’s radical past and nature won’t play well outside of his MN-05 district. Running against an incumbent woman with significant credibility inside the DFL only makes that problem worse.

Smith might have more trouble beating Lori Swanson and/or Rebecca Otto, both of whom have won statewide elections as Attorney General and state auditor, respectively, and both of whom are eyeing the gubernatorial race next year. If one of them decides to peel off and aim for the US Senate, Smith might run into trouble — but she won’t lose to Ellison, or to a state legislator, unless she fumbles badly in Washington. And Klobuchar will be on hand to make sure that doesn’t happen.

All that’s left is for Franken to resign, although he didn’t give much hint of that as the Alabama election unfolded:

Al Franken is the Senate’s dead man walking, still doing his day job despite his soon-to-be-gone status.

The two-term Minnesota lawmaker told a somber Senate last Thursday he would resign amid multiple allegations of sexual misconduct and in the face of vanishing support from fellow Democrats. Franken was back at work this week, casting votes in the Senate, participating in a committee hearing and attending a senator-only luncheon with Democrats. …

Franken has not said exactly when he will leave the Senate, although his departure seems certain. Even so, some Democrats have begun to have second thoughts about forcing him out so quickly, especially as allegations of sexual misconduct against President Donald Trump remain unresolved and Republican Roy Moore sought a Senate seat from Alabama despite accusations that he molested teenagers decades ago. Moore and Trump have both denied the allegations.

There are good reasons for those second thoughts, but they’re too late to save Franken now. Dayton’s appointment means they’d have to backtrack and deny a woman the chance to replace him after first demanding that Dayton do just that. Dayton has delivered, and the deluge of Senate Democrats who moved en masse to demand his resignation will have no good explanation for a reversal at this late stage.