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After Long Court Battle, Franken Wins Minn. Senate Seat

June 30, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Democrat Al Franken narrowly defeated Republican Norm Coleman in last year's U.S. Senate race. Analysts discuss the case and the significance of Franken's win.

JIM LEHRER: Now that long-awaited outcome in the Minnesota
U.S. Senate race. The Minnesota Supreme Court today ordered Democrat Al Franken
certified as the winner. He had been locked in a recount battle with his Republican
opponent, Norm Coleman, for more than seven months.

This afternoon, both Coleman and Franken spoke to reporters.

FORMER SEN. NORM COLEMAN, R-Minn.: Ours is a government of
laws, not men and women, and the Supreme Court of Minnesota has spoken. I
respect its decision, and I will abide by its result. It’s time for Minnesotans
to come together under the leaders it has chosen and move forward. And I join
all Minnesotans in congratulating our newest United States senator, Al Franken.

SENATOR-ELECT AL FRANKEN, D-Minn.: I won by 312 votes, so I
really have to earn the trust of the people who didn’t vote for me and of all
the people of Minnesota, and let them know not just by my saying so, but by my
actions that I’m going to be working for every Minnesotan.

JIM LEHRER: Gwen Ifill
has more.

Gaining from absentee ballots

GWEN IFILL: Today's ruling has implications not only for Minnesota, but also forthe Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate. Here to fill us in on the detailsare Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's politicaldaily, and veteran Minnesota political writer Eric Black, who blogs

Eric, 238 days later, absentee ballots count. People forgetthat at one point on Election Day Norm Coleman was actually ahead by 200 votes.What made the difference?

ERIC BLACK, Well, it was a long process. Andat almost every stage, Franken actually gained ground. He gained ground whenthey did a hand recount. And he gained ground when they went over thechallenged ballots to see if they could ascertain voter intent. And then, formonths now, they've really been arguing about which absentee ballots should andshouldn't have been counted. And in the final decision by the courts on thatmatter, Franken's lead went up a little more.

It's still a very, very tiny 312-vote lead out of 3 millionvotes cast, but Franken gained ground at every stage.

GWEN IFILL: Did he in the end really benefit from the factthat these were absentee ballots that this election was hanging on?

ERIC BLACK: I think he did. I think he benefited from thatin part because this was a very strong state for the Obama campaign, and theMcCain campaign pulled out early, and the Obama campaign was really pushingpeople to vote absentee, and they probably created a pool of absentee ballotsthat was better for Franken than the general pool.

But the fact is he did -- Franken did pull into the leadbefore they started going over the absentee ballots.

GWEN IFILL: Did the Coleman forces ever try to make the casethat there was fraud involved in this election outcome?

ERIC BLACK: They never did. And the Supreme Court todaycalled a lot of attention to that. Certainly, in, you know, partisan circles,there were people looking for that and grumbling about it, but there was nevera formal allegation that had any legs at all that anybody did anything fishy tobring about this result.

Implications for the U.S. Senate

AMY WALTER, editor-in-chief, The Hotline: That's right. Whenis 60 not really 60? Sixty is not sixty when there are two Democratic senators,Senator Kennedy and Senator Byrd, who have not been a very active presence in Washington recently.They both are ill, so that means...

GWEN IFILL: And we should point out, the 60 is thefilibuster-proof majority.

AMY WALTER: Correct.

GWEN IFILL: That's why it's the magic number.

AMY WALTER: That's right, the magic number when supposedlyeverything can get done when you have 60. So you're really starting now with58, including Franken.

Now we shave it back a little bit more. And we say we'vealready seen the battles on the climate change bill, on health care. We knowthat there are moderates and liberals who aren't on the same page, and sogetting 60 votes just from Democrats is still going to be a very difficultthing to do.

In fact, the great irony is going to be, the only way topass a lot of this stuff is maybe to get to 60, but getting there with ahandful, maybe two or three, Republicans.

GWEN IFILL: So Senator-elect Franken arriving in the Senateat a time when health care is about to be teed up, the climate change bill thatjust passed through the House with, what, 40-some Democrats defected...


GWEN IFILL: ... does he make a big difference...

AMY WALTER: So I don't think that he makes as big of adifference. Look, if you're Harry Reid, it's another vote. You're very happyabout that.

But it's also a mixed blessing for the majority leader,because he's looking at this now and that's the thinking nationally, is,"Hey, you have 60 votes. You can get anything done you want to getdone." It raises the expectations bar when he knows that getting thosevotes are a lot more difficult than it seems.

I think for Republicans, too, they may see this as anopportunity to paint Democrats as the party that's not able to get anythingdone.

It was interesting. I got the press release from theRepublican Senate Campaign Committee chairman, John Cornyn, senator from Texas, who says aboutthis, Franken's win, "The era of excuses and finger-pointing is nowover." In other words, Harry Reid, if you don't get things passed in theSenate, it's not our fault. It's yours. And to say...

GWEN IFILL: They're already campaigning on this.

AMY WALTER: Nobody -- right. And you will see themcampaigning on this, if, indeed, energy, health care don't get done.

Costs of the recount

ERIC BLACK: I'm sure she'll be glad to have another senatorto share some of the work with, especially constituent service work, which, youknow, generates a lot of staff work. But she seemed to have conducted herselfwell in the meantime. And I was impressed at how far Senator Coleman,ex-Senator Coleman, went out of his way to thank her publicly during hisconcession speech this afternoon.

GWEN IFILL: Both of these candidates -- or at least theirsupporters -- are $11 million poorer for having continued this recount. It wasan expensive race to begin with. Where did that money come from?

ERIC BLACK: Well, both were drawing from a substantialnational base of contributors. Of course, once you get into the recount, peoplewho are very devoted to either party don't have that many races to contributeto, so there was a perpetual fundraising effort on both sides, very successful.

And it often seemed that a lot of what they were doing inpublic was more about keeping the money coming in than it was about winning thecase, although they obviously had to be working on both fronts.

No 'average senator'

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask both you and Amy about, now that wehave Senator- elect Franken, you've been covering his race. You've beenwatching his evolution from a comedian to a United States senator. What kind ofsenator will he be?

ERIC BLACK: Me first?


ERIC BLACK: Well, I think he's not going to be your averagesenator. He didn't come from a typical background for a senator. Hispre-politics life left him with some impressions that people found difficult toaccept from a senatorial candidate. He's got a different personality. I thinkhe's on his best behavior now and is going to try to keep it up.

But, you know, he was a comedian. He was a radio talk showhost. He was very aggressive and argumentative in some of those roles. And nowhe's pledging to be someone who can work across party lines.

And, you know, he won't have to face the voters of Minnesota forfive-and-a-half years. We'll see what they think of his personality when histurn comes around.

GWEN IFILL: What do you think about that?

AMY WALTER: Yes, I agree with Eric. And I think he wants todispel those stereotypes, that I'm just the guy from "Saturday NightLive" that's going to come in and I'm going to be either, one, the funnyguy...

GWEN IFILL: Is it a stereotype or is it what he was?

AMY WALTER: Well, OK, you're right. Or that I'm going tojust be the funny guy in the Senate, number one, because, quite frankly, AmyKlobuchar, very funny, so she's, I think, taken that mantle. If you've seen herin public, she's been really seen as sort of a rising star in part because shehas this wonderful sense of humor.

But also that his temperament was going to be a problem.Remember, he wasn't just a liberal talk show host. He was a very aggressiveattack dog, writing books like, "Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot."So I think he's going to want to -- he wants to come in, prove that he has the policychops, prove that he has the temperament to do this job.

Now, it's going to be a lot different when he has to go in,in the back-and-forth in the Senate, but I think it's very telling that forthese seven months that this process has dragged out, you have not seen AlFranken do any of that temperament stuff that some have suggested he would.

GWEN IFILL: First big test is Sotomayor hearings. He saidtoday he's going to be on the Judiciary Committee, so we'll be hearing from himthen.

Eric Black in Minnesota,Amy Walter in Washington,thank you both very much.

ERIC BLACK: Thank you. Good to be with you, Gwen.