Sexual misconduct allegations against Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota could cost the Democrats a rising star who energized progressives and a rainmaker who drove millions into establishment coffers.
During the 2016 election cycle, Franken transferred more than $322,000 in personal campaign funds to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. A similar cash infusion is presumably off limits in the upcoming 2018 midterm elections, as Franken is politically damaged goods now that he stands accused by two women of groping.
Perhaps a bigger loss than his direct contributions to Democrats’ Senate campaign arm is the sidelining of Franken, 66, as a go-to fundraiser for his colleagues, particularly ahead of an election featuring several vulnerable Democratic incumbents. Facing tough re-elections, they returned or donated Franken’s contributions within hours of the first allegation, which occurred in 2006 before Franken was elected to the Senate.
Franken’s email fundraising list, methodically built over many years, is among the most lucrative in Democratic politics with small, grassroots donors. His success as a headliner was unique for a rank-and-file, second-term senator. The brash liberal and former comedian was a top, box-office draw on the fundraising circuit. But with a second allegation of sexual harassment surfacing Monday, Franken is matching his swift rise with an equally rapid fall.
“He is indeed sidelined — and it’s a significant loss,” said a Democratic political operative focused on congressional races, who, like others interviewed for this story, requested anonymity in order to speak candidly.
“[What’s] difficult to replace is his voice, and by extension, his performance on other people’s lists,” this operative continued. “Sure, his shakedown emails were asking for money. But they were more often than not legitimately funny, and people would open and read them and give because of it.”
Even as President Trump continues to endanger Republicans in Congress in 2018, a Senate map favorable to the GOP is creating headaches for the Democrats. Only a third of the chambers’ 100 seats are up for election in the midterm, and Democrats are defending 10 in states that Trump won last year.
In part, it’s going to take money and progressive energy to hold down potential Democratic losses in states like Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and West Virginia, and to score pickups in Arizona and Nevada, where Republicans are on defense. That’s why removing a dual grassroots-establishment threat like Franken from the playing field is so devastating to the Democrats.
“Clearly we have a leadership deficit in our party and it’s always unfortunate when one of our leaders loses an important seat, whether they step down, retire or are voted out,” said Nomiki Konst, a member of the Democratic National Committee who supported Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at the party’s 2016 presidential nominating convention.
Franken’s popularity is in part a product of his comedic roots, with the senator managing to deliver the perfect balance of humor and earnestness on the stump. As a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he emerged as a cathartic voice for Democratic activists, grilling Trump’s cabinet picks and, in particular, frustrating Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
First elected in 2008, Franken kept his head down, refusing to speak to Capitol Hill reporters as he built his credibility as a serious lawmaker. But in the last year, he has actively raised his profile, placing emphasis on the issue of women’s rights.
Last month, Franken tweeted that “sexual harassment and violence are unacceptable,” urging people to listen to, and support, survivors. Franken apologized for his behavior after the allegations were made against him, but has repeatedly said that he recalls both incidents differently, or doesn’t remember details.
“There’s no doubt that he was rising through the ranks though I never thought he would be able to run for president because Republicans would have an opposition file on him a mile long,” said a Democratic strategist with ties to Minnesota. “Certainly he was trying to build greater influence in the Senate and with some success.
The strategist expressed disappointment in Franken, and said that the financial impact would likely be felt more by his colleagues or candidates who planned to rely on him for fundraising support.
While Konst wouldn’t rush to judgment on Franken, saying an investigation should take place first, she had little sympathy for the gaping hole Franken could potentially leave in the party. Franken shouldn’t be Democrats “end-all-be-all strategy,” she quipped.
“Our leaders are flawed and that’s why we have to hold them accountable,” she said. “So we teach our leaders to behave better and to not just be feminists on paper and in policy but feminists in real life.”
“I’m sorry it sucks; Santa doesn’t exist. The party is deeply flawed and we have to deal with it. Does that mean he has to step down? I don’t know. I don’t know how far this goes but we shouldn’t excuse him because he’s a Democratic senator and we need to keep our Senate seat.”