Al Franken vs. Norm Coleman gets down and dirty

The senate race between the Republican incumbent and the former SNL comedian is the most expensive in the country

On a grim, chilly evening

in early October, Al Franken, Norm Coleman, and Independence Party candidate Dean Barkley sat side-by-side-by-side at a table in Rochester. The 1,000-plus in attendance had gathered to see three senatorial candidates square off on the issues.

Nevertheless, Coleman and Franken instead chose to rehash their relentless attacks on one another.

Dan Picasso
Darin Back

Coleman expounded on "the difference between talk and action" no less than six times during the hour-and-a-half-long contest. In a cadence eerily similar to that of Heath Ledger's Joker, Franken mentioned President Bush at least seven times in connection with Coleman.

During the last half-hour, the moderator read aloud questions submitted by the audience. The second one forced the candidates to finally acknowledge the lingering stench that clung to the political contest:

"What is your commitment to civility in your campaign and what are you doing to ensure that the dialogue is civil with respect to your own ads and those of people on your behalf?"

Franken deftly dodged the question. "Part of an election is holding an incumbent accountable," he said, adding that his campaign has "been running ads about Norm Coleman's record, and so it's a lot of negative, because his record hasn't been very good."

For his part, Coleman embraced the very ethos the question was intended to dismantle. "Mr. Franken's record is his career," he said. "And you gotta decide: Is temperament important? Yeah, it's pretty important! There are some tough ads. But they go to his record just as his ads, he says, challenge my record."

For more than a year, Minnesotans have been treated to a caricature of everything trite and distracting in American politics. During a time of horrifying backsliding on multiple American fronts—economically, socially, militarily, constitutionally—the race for the U.S. Senate has been marked by round-the-clock attack ads, weird back-and-forth accusations, swipes at the candidates' wives, and insincere moral grandstanding.

The smears haven't come cheap. The Coleman and Franken campaigns have spent a combined $28 million, making it by far the most expensive Senate race in the country this year. Of that, a staggering $19 million has been put toward 10,000 television ads, almost all of then negative.

"It's the ugliest race in the state of Minnesota I've ever seen in terms of the level and frequency of attacks," says Paula O'Loughlin, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota-Morris. "The campaigns know that they're turning people off, but the goal is to lower the other guy's turnout more than it lowers your own. It's like chemotherapy: In order to kill the cancer, they poison you."

The first salvo

There's a reason the mudslinging between Coleman and Franken feels like it's been raging since time immemorial.

"The length of time that we've seen negative ads is somewhat unprecedented," says public relations expert and political observer Blois Olson. "So I think fatigue has been a factor on voters as a result of the ads."

The campaign began in the summer of 2007. With public support of Bush's handling of the Iraq war languishing at a paltry 30-ish percent, Franken took out a full-page ad in the Star-Tribune lambasting Coleman for supporting the Mesopotamian misadventure: "Senator Norm Coleman stood with President Bush and voted against bringing our troops home. Again," read the text above a photo of Coleman and Bush locking arms.

Coleman hit back with an ad trashing Franken for refusing to condemn MoveOn.org's "General Betray Us" ad, a school-yard jibe against General David Petraeus.

When it was discovered that the Strib had charged Coleman $32,000 for the ad—a full $12,000 less than had Franken paid—the daily wrote Franken a check to cover the difference.

The battle was on.

Me so ornery

Having never held political office, Franken leaves behind no voting record to scrutinize, nor policies to critique. Which would be a tremendous advantage if Franken had made his living as anything other than a comedian.

On March 14, the conservative blog Minnesota Democrats Exposed posted a YouTube clip of a Franken reading from his book Rush Limbaugh Is Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. In one scene, Newt Gingrich enters a Saigon bar and converses with a Vietnamese prostitute, who spits in his face.

When Franken read the prostitute's dialogue aloud, he dropped his R's and adopted a Vietnamese accent and inflection.

Which caused the blog to arrive at the conclusion that Al Franken hates Asian people.

In a normal campaign, grasping-for-straws blog-wash like this is usually ignored. But Coleman opted to pounce on the fabricated controversy.

"Al Franken may have serious disagreements with people like Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh," Coleman scolded in a statement. "But I fail to see how he needs to play into stereotypes of cultures in order to attack those he opposes."

Ticky-tax foul

For a traveling author and comic, it can be a challenge to keep track of all the states to which you must pay taxes.

After it came out in April that Franken owed some $50,000 in back taxes to 17 states, Coleman tried to tar him as a tax cheat. One of the more memorable attack ads starred an eight-year-old girl who, for some reason, was outraged by Franken's blunder.

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