On Thursday, Al Franken will announce that, in light of the growing number of sexual-harassment allegations against him, he has decided to resign from the Senate. Unless he announces that he’s actually comfortable staying on as a pariah — or else, that he’s decided to leave the Democratic caucus, and join a party that takes a more nuanced view of sexual predation.
But most observers are betting on Door No. 1. Should Franken bow out, Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, will have the opportunity to appoint a replacement, who would remain in office until November 2018, when the state would hold a special Senate election. The winner of that race would then serve out the remaining two years of Franken’s term, and face reelection in 2020.
Democrats have a solid bench of political talent in Minnesota (congressmen Keith Ellison and Tim Walz, and attorney general Lori Swanson are among the party’s many plausible statewide candidates). And most expected Dayton to pick the cream of that crop, allowing the party to part ways with Franken while still retaining a strong candidate — and the advantage of incumbency — in upcoming races for his Senate seat. But the Gopher State governor has other plans.
According to Politico, Dayton intends to appoint his lieutenant governor Tina Smith to Franken’s seat. Smith is well liked and respected in Minnesota. As chief of staff to former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak, Smith played a leading part in rebuilding the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis, following its sudden collapse in 2007. And she played an instrumental role in Dayton’s political rise. Smith would make a perfectly plausible senator from Minnesota, in 2018 and beyond — except that she reportedly has no interest in the “beyond” part. Earlier this year, Smith passed on running to replace Dayton, and suggested that she had little interest in campaigning for any political office again.
And this is why Dayton (reportedly) favors her.
His reasoning: Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party has a lot of plausible Senate candidates; there are some sharp divisions in the party, which were exacerbated during the 2016 campaign; and so, he would rather appoint a temporary placeholder — and let the party’s voters pick Franken’s long-term replacement — instead of putting his thumb on the scales.
This makes sense as a means for Dayton to avoid alienating any of his party’s rising stars. And it’s an admirably democratic stance to strike. But it could significantly increase the risk that a Republican inherits Franken’s seat next November. Incumbency is an awfully powerful advantage for a party to forfeit, and Minnesota wouldn’t hold its Democratic primary until August of next year — giving its general election pick just three months to concentrate on his or her Republican opponent. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in Minnesota by less than 2 percentage points last year.
Of course, it’s possible that once Tina Smith settles into her Senate seat, she won’t want to give it up. The senatorial gig is, typically, a tough one to voluntarily forfeit — as Al Franken’s foot-dragging vividly illustrates.