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Senate race: It’s incumbent vs. newcomer

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Duluth News Tribune
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FALCON HEIGHTS, Minn. — Al Franken sat with a dozen St. Cloud workforce leaders to accept their thanks for working on a bill they say will help Minnesotans seeking jobs.

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Mike McFadden answered questions on a Twin Cities radio station at the Minnesota State Fair, while just out of his earshot, a station staffer asked “who is Mike McFadden?”

Franken stopped outside his fair booth, and within seconds a line began to form to meet him and, mostly, to get pictures snapped of the U.S. senator and former “Saturday Night Live” writer and performer, author, satirist and radio talk show host.

McFadden walked the fairgrounds, drawing little attention before finding two couples in the dairy barn who wanted to talk politics.

Franken, a Democrat, insisted on only three general elections debates.

Republican challenger McFadden wants more debates to reach a wider audience.

In many ways, Minnesota’s Franken-McFadden Senate race is a typical battle between a sitting senator and a political newcomer. But in this case, the two are engaged in a race that could decide which party controls the Senate, because Republicans only need to switch six seats to take power away from Democrats.

Franken brings with him a background that made him well known long before he was elected but also baggage that came with it. He angered conservatives as an outspoken left-wing talk show host and upset more than a few with controversial skits he wrote or starred in on “SNL.”

He is known to most Minnesotans from his previous life in the entertainment industry as well as slightly more than five years in office, a tenure that started late because of a lengthy recount and post-election court fight that left him with a 312-vote win over then-Sen. Norm Coleman.

McFadden, on the other hand, is making his first run at public office while taking a break from his business career. He was little-known on the political scene before he announced last year that he would challenge Franken.

His inexperience shows, political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota said.

The Republican has made several mistakes, including saying he could accept Chinese steel in a new oil pipeline, a comment coming in a state with a significant industry that produces taconite used to make steel. He also called for a gasoline tax increase, only to tell reporters minutes later he opposes the increase.

“He doesn’t have a clue about politics,” Jacobs said. “His efforts to correct the (tax and steel) mistakes reinforce the fact that he doesn’t get it.”

McFadden admits to mistakes and tells Minnesotans he will make more because, he said, he is not a professional politician.

He has not allowed the mistakes to slow him down or cool his enthusiasm.

While he walked through the fair, he was chipper and optimistic.

“I have a lot of energy about this,” he said.

McFadden already has made more progress than Republican candidate Kurt Bills made during his campaign two years ago against U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

“Bills was like a wet blanket on the ticket,” Jacobs said, but McFadden has found more money, including his own, than Bills ever did.

People at the fair who knew little about McFadden regularly went up to him and said things like, “I liked your commercial.”

McFadden has released a trio of commercials that mix humor with serious policy points.

Since deciding to run for Senate, Franken has tamped down his public humor, preferring to be known for his policy stances and work in the Senate. But he cannot shake his past completely.

“I watched you on SNL for years,” a fairgoer told him after Franken finished a radio interview.

But most who formed long lines at Franken’s fair booth thanked him for his work on worker training, agriculture and other issues.

Like other incumbents, Franken can take advantage of being in office.

At a recent St. Cloud meeting, the senator received thanks from the Stearns-Benton Workforce Council for a new federal law that helps workforce leaders better train potential employees. One example they gave Franken is teaching English to people who struggle with the language.

“I think Minnesotans have gotten a measure for me,” Franken said in an interview. “It is a slightly different experience than it was seven or eight years ago.”

McFadden and other Republicans work hard to connect Franken to President Barack Obama (“they are joined at the hip,” McFadden likes to say). That effort includes carrying around an Obama cutout behind Franken to emphasize that connection.

The GOP attempt does not seem to bother Franken.

“I have voted for Minnesota’s interests,” he said, and opposes Obama on issues important to Minnesota, such as the battle to keep federal rules requiring crop-based fuels to be mixed with gasoline and diesel. “I think that Minnesotans know I am on their side, most Minnesotans.”

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Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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