Open season: Republican jumps at opening afforded by Franken resignation

Democrats expected next year’s Senate midterm elections to be hard enough as it was. Twenty-five of their incumbents have to defend their seats, while Republicans only need to defend eight — and only one of those in a state carried by Hillary Clinton (Dean Heller in Nevada). In Minnesota, Amy Klobuchar’s defense of her seat was considered rock-solid enough to allow national resources to flow to other states with more risk, such as the ten seats where Trump won last November.

With Al Franken’s resignation, however, suddenly both Minnesota seats will be up for grabs next year. Republicans have started strategizing over the new opportunity, and yesterday a GOP candidate formally jumped into the race:

Minnesota state Sen. Karin Housley (R) launched a bid for Senate on Tuesday, making her the first Republican to enter the special election race to replace Sen. Al Franken (D), who is expected to resign in the coming weeks.

In a video posted on her Twitter account, Housley played up her deep roots in the state as the daughter of Minnesota school teachers.

She said she’d fight to protect veterans, senior citizens and “the unborn.” Housley, who owns a local real estate company, said she’d be an advocate for small businesses.

“I’m Karin Housley and I’m running for U.S. Senate,” she says in the launch video. “You might be asking yourself — why would anyone want to go to Washington right now and be part of that dysfunction they call Congress? Actually, I can’t think of any place in this country more in need of someone like me right now.”

Housely might turn out to be a fairly strong candidate. The two-term state senator has some star power behind her name; her husband is National Hockey League Hall of Famer Phil Housely, which won’t hurt in a hockey-enthusiastic state. Sen. Housely doesn’t have a reputation as a conservative ideologue, her home-town newspaper notes, but more of a values-based politician with deep cultural connections to Minnesota.

There will undoubtedly be more Republicans jumping into this race, but Housely is an intriguing prospect. She would give Republicans a chance to support a woman in a race where sexual harassment will at least be the context of the election, if not an explicit issue, given the circumstances of Franken’s resignation. Tina Smith will probably run unopposed in the Democratic primary after getting Mark Dayton’s appointment, but she’s only run for office once as Dayton’s running mate. Housely has more experience under her belt after two elections, and perhaps an opportunity to outshine the quiet, behind-the-scenes approach that Smith has had up until Franken’s decision to exit the Senate.

That assumes, of course, that Franken will resign. In my column for The Week, I argue that Franken could easily change his mind — but probably won’t after getting shivved by his so-called friends this month, no matter how many crocodile tears they shed now over his departure:

Why the need for a frantic bum’s rush on Dec. 6? The answer was found not in Washington or Minnesota, but in Alabama. The special election to fill the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions appeared too close to call despite several credible allegations of sexual misconduct from decades earlier against Republican candidate Roy Moore. Senate Democrats argued that Moore should not be seated at all if he won the election, and that Mitch McConnell’s intention to refer the matter to the Senate Ethics Committee was merely a dodge meant to keep the seat in the GOP’s hands. …

Now that Jones has the seat, some Senate Democrats suddenly want to clear their consciences even more than they wanted to hug Franken after his speech. Perhaps that impulse comes from a public swipe from Washington Post editor James Downie over the stark hypocrisy of Democratic self-congratulation over their “zero tolerance” for bad behavior. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Downie pointed out, has been credibly accused of corrupt acts while in office, for which he remains under indictment. The Department of Justice still may decide to try him again after a hung jury last month, and the Senate Ethics Committee has again taken up its own probe into his activities with convicted Medicare fraudster Salomon Melgen. If due process was good enough for Menendez for allegations of corrupt acts in office, why wasn’t it for Franken and his allegations that took place entirely outside of his Senate work environment?

That question has an easy answer. Franken has the misfortune of having a reliable Democratic governor to pick his replacement. Until Jan. 16, Republican Gov. Chris Christie would appoint Menendez’s replacement. Perhaps when Democrat Phil Murphy gets inaugurated, Senate Democrats will once again rediscover their “zero tolerance” and “moral high ground.” For now, Senate Democrats are not only continuing to stand by Menendez, they’re still pouring money into his campaign.

Maybe Franken will want to keep his resignation in place just to get away from his “friends” on Capitol Hill. With friends like these, who needs Republicans?

Just as with the Alabama election, though, watch for changing sentiment among Senate Democrats in direct proportion to the perceived risk in the upcoming election.