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A Senate Race Where Democrats Neutralized Obamacare Attacks

By Sarah Chacko, CQ Roll Call (MCT)

The Republican critique of the president’s health care overhaul law may have hit a wall in Minnesota, complicating the GOP’s already long chances of picking up a Senate seat in the state.

Though the state’s health care exchange, MNsure, has hit a few snags in recent weeks, local Democrats still claim the program is an overall success — at least relative to other states. A University of Minnesota study credited the Affordable Care Act for dropping the state’s uninsured numbers to roughly 5 percent, making it the one of the lowest in the country.Minnesota also touts the lowest premium rates and generally low health care costs.

Those statistics have made it more difficult for businessman Mike McFadden, the GOP’s nominee, to challenge Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) for supporting the president’s signature health care law. Franken is the front-runner in the race, and independent polls show him with a small double-digit lead.

“The Republicans hope that the toxicity of the moniker Obamacare would lead to this kind of mob running against the Democrats has not happened. Voters are hearing different things,” said Larry Jacobs, a political science professor at University of Minnesota. “It’s turning out that Democrats have found strategies to fight to a draw, which in 2014 is probably the best they could hope for, at least on this issue.”

Franken’s campaign has focused on the state’s achievements and the more popular aspects of the law, including a provision he helped craft that requires health insurers to spend at least 80 percent of premium dollars on services, as opposed to administrative overhead.

McFadden initially opposed that language as part of his position to repeal the health care law, but he later said he would consider keeping the policy when pressed on the issue in an August interview with WCCO-TV. In a recent debate, McFadden has said his major gripe with the health care law is that states can make better decisions than the White House.

“I believe the states are laboratories for experiment,” he said in an Oct. 1 debate.

If we allow the federal government to do it, our health care system will look like the VA, and I’m not going to allow that to happen.”

Franken warned repealing the law could lead to greater frustrations, sending a divided Congress back to the drawing board.

“Do you think this Congress now, as gridlocked as it is, is actually going to come up with a health care plan with guarantees to cover pre-existing conditions and all the other stuff that we’ve seen?” Franken concluded in the debate.

To be sure, the rollout of the Minnesota health care exchange last October was as rocky as the launch. Software errors and technical glitches ultimately lead to the resignation of MNsure’s first executive director.

But things have been smoother for MNsure since then — at least until last month when Preferred One, the cheapest and largest provider that carried 53 percent of the state exchange’s commercial plans, withdrew from the exchange. Two weeks later, the Minnesota Commerce Department announced premium rates are expected to increase an average of 4.5 percent in 2015.

A Democratic strategist familiar with Senate races said though Democrats did not make the health care law a centerpiece of their campaigns, they were concerned those two events would cause their numbers to drop.

Despite Republican attempts to tie those issues to the candidates, polls since then show Democrats maintaining or improving their leads in the state, the strategist said.

In surveys, Minnesotans mirror the nation’s discontent with the health care law; 44 percent said they consider MNsure “mostly a failure” in a September poll.However that has yet to sway their opinion in the Senate race. The same poll showed Franken’s support at 49 percent, a number that has not changed by much since then.

“I haven’t seen it working,”the strategist said. “The die is just so far cast.”

McFadden and his supporters say Franken’s support of the health care law exemplifies the incumbent’s partisan slant and blame him for following the party line to bring a “Washington-based policy” to the state.

“A lot of things that we’ve seen MNsure, for lack of a better word, ‘solve’ were already things that our existing program could have done,” said John Rouleau, executive director of the right-leaning Minnesota Jobs Coalition “And things that MNsure has done, it hasn’t done that well.”

Franken has also been criticized for not pushing harder against a medical device tax included in the health care law, which affects the hundreds of medical device companies in the state, including Medtronic and St. Jude Medical. Franken, a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, says he worked with former Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus to cut the tax in half and has since advocated for repealing that part of the law.

Minnesotans disgruntled about the state’s health care program also may decide to place the blame on the governor’s desk instead of Franken’s.

McFadden’s argument requires voters to tie what’s happening in the state to what the federal government did, said Steven Schier, a political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield. Meanwhile, the debate in the gubernatorial race about state management is gaining more traction, he said.

“At the end of the day, Mark Dayton is going to be held responsible for that, not Al Franken,” Schier said.

The Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call rates this race as Democrat Favored.

Photo: John Taylor via Flickr

Despite His Safe Seat, Ellison Plunges Into Race

By Allison Sherry, Star Tribune (MCT)

U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, running in his heavily Democratic Minneapolis congressional district, could put his campaign in neutral and coast to victory if he wanted.

But that’s not how he’s approaching this race.

As Democrats across the country fret over projections that Republicans are now heavily favored to take the U.S. Senate and that Democratic governors are at risk, Ellison wants to do his part.

So even though he faces only token opposition, the four-term congressman is spending nights canvassing Minneapolis neighborhoods and college dormitories, strumming his guitar and trying to get people excited about politics — or more accurately, about voting. He plans to rent vans to shuttle city churchgoers to the polls after Sunday services in a “souls to the polls” effort. His re-election team has devised an “apartment program” where they identify whole buildings of voters who may never get called because they are so transient. Ellison then goes to those places and knocks on doors.

It’s not because he needs it. Two years ago, only seven House members in the country racked up more raw votes than Ellison. His urban district is what political insiders call a “D+22,” which means Democrats are favored to win by a full 22 percentage points over Republicans.

The reason Ellison expends all this energy is twofold. First, he wants to be a team player and aid fellow Democrats Gov. Mark Dayton and Sen. Al Franken at the top of the ticket and he has the luxury of a safe seat from which to do so. Second, as he demurely nurses ambitions of cultivating voter outreach efforts nationally, it helps to have a track record.

“I believe that if there is any antidote to big money in politics, it’s grassroots organizing and massive voter turnout,” said Ellison, 51, whose GOP challenger is former software engineer Doug Daggett, 50, of Minneapolis. “I really believe if this kind of turnout operation was replicated all over the country it would change the whole dynamic. It would create a significantly different landscape. But to motivate those voters, you gotta talk to them, you gotta talk to them about something they care about.”

The truth is, when any campaign is asked about its voter outreach efforts, staffers promise they are doing the next big thing. Minnesota Republicans boast 18 “victory offices” they opened around the state — something they have never done before. Minnesota GOP Chair Keith Downey says the offices — and the activities going on inside them — help counter the sophisticated Obama ground campaign that swamped Republicans in 2008 and 2012.

“I can’t tell you the last time we really did a bang-up job,” Downey said. “Clearly we got beat badly on the ground in 2012, and that was my commitment coming in as chairman, to improve our field operation and rebuild our ground game capability to help our candidates. I think the party is in a much better position this year. Our brand is positive again.”

Franken’s campaign says it is building up micro-campaigns in neighborhoods around the state and that volunteers will run voter drives out of their living rooms. Mike McFadden’s camp says it has a “database guy” who has built a profile of what undecided voters who may support the GOP Senate challenger may look like and are using that strategy to do their own microtargeting.

Ellison is spending some of his own campaign cash — some $200,000 on hand through July — to attract voters like University of Minnesota student Lindsay Powell, who just turned 18.

The Wisconsin native, who lives in a U dorm, says she would have tried to register to vote ahead of the election, but the aggressive voter registration efforts made it easy for the busy college student to send in an absentee ballot.

“I’m a lot busier than I thought, but this whole idea of them coming to the dorm room, it was definitely a good approach,” she said.

Democrats face a constant battle on the turnout front because Republicans are generally better at consistent voting — even in bad weather, in off-years, in uninteresting elections. Quick case in point: In Ellison’s 5th Congressional District, only 234,000 voted in 2010, the last midterm election. In the heavily Republican Sixth Congressional District, 305,000 people showed up to vote that same year. Congressional districts are drawn to be roughly the same population size.

Staffers point out that after much work between 2010 and 2012, Ellison pulled a full 142,000 more voters to the polls last cycle.

Asked why he isn’t funneling efforts somewhere else, maybe to save some plummeting Democrat in another state, Ellison said he liked sleeping in his own bed and “throwing down your buckets where you are.”

“I wish everybody would do this,” he said, coy about whether he wants to take this kind of work to a national platform someday. “All these races, all these Senate races that are so close right now, they have urban pockets where there are huge numbers of Democrats. … A lot of things we’re doing, I’d like to see replicated.”

Photo: Center for American Progress via Flickr

Midterm Roundup: GOP Surrenders In Michigan

Here are some interesting stories on the midterm campaigns that you may have missed on Tuesday, October 7:

• As Republican Senate nominee Terri Lynn Land falls further behind in Michigan, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is pulling the plug on its planned TV ad spending in the final two weeks of the campaign. The move, which will allow the NRSC to invest in more competitive races, is a tacit acknowledgement that Land no longer has a path to victory over Democrat Gary Peters.

• In Minnesota, another state where Republicans hoped to expand the Senate map, Senator Al Franken (D) has opened up an 18-point lead over GOP challenger Mike McFadden, according to a new KSTP/SurveyUSA poll. Franken now leads by 11.5 percent in the Real Clear Politics poll average, and appears to have re-election in the bag.

• Mayday PAC, the SuperPAC that hopes to limit the influence of money in politics, will spend $1 million over the next four weeks on behalf of South Dakota Senate candidate Rick Weiland (D). Two recent surveys have suggested that the race is getting tighter, although Republican Mike Rounds still leads comfortably in the poll average.

• According to three new polls, Florida Democrat Charlie Crist holds a narrow lead in his race against incumbent Republican governor Rick Scott. Crist is ahead by just 1.4 percent in the poll average.

• And this won’t help Senator Mark Pryor’s re-election campaign: The embattled Arkansas Democrat stumbled badly after being asked about the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola crisis. He has previously run ads attacking his opponent on the issue. Pryor trails by 3.7 percent in the poll average.

Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM via Flickr

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Al Franken Takes Senate Job Seriously (He’s Still Funny In Private)

By Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau

WILLMAR, Minn. — It must be said at this point: Sen. Al Franken is just dull.

How dull is he? He says the most memorable conversation he’s had as a senator — “hilarious” even — was a wonkish discussion with former President Bill Clinton about how to finance energy retrofits.

During travels throughout the state, he stops at Dairy Queen and always orders the same thing: a plain vanilla cone.

The former “Saturday Night Live” writer and actor generally shuns the national media unless it’s to talk about one of his obscure pet issues, such as corporate media mergers or net neutrality.

Even his re-election is a little bit boring. More than five years after the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld his razor-thin 312-vote margin of victory, the Democratic senator is low on the list of endangered incumbents this year, even as several other Democrats fight to hold their seats.

Apparently dull is good politics for Al Franken.

It’s not that Franken is no longer funny — he is, though it’s mostly out of public view. But one of the more noteworthy aspects of the former comic’s first Senate term has been his effort to avoid the spotlight and to play against type.

“I’m in a different job,” he said in an interview. “My old job was being funny, basically. And that’s not my new job.”

The transformation from comic and political commentator to one of the most understated members of the Senate is often attributed to the so-called Hillary Clinton model, a reference to how the she strove to lower her profile and focus on constituents’ needs after she was elected as a senator from New York.

Franken also faced the prospect of filling the shoes of political giants who had held the seat: Hubert H. Humphrey and Walter F. Mondale — and his friend and political inspiration, the late Paul Wellstone.

Franken says he went to Washington “to be the workhorse and not a show horse.” The acerbic comedian who once declared the 1980s as the “Al Franken Decade” has been hesitant to exploit his celebrity status in the new post. “I had years in show business and had plenty of camera time,” he said. “By being perceived as someone who was rushing to the camera all the time, it can undercut your effectiveness in the body.”

He may be stone-faced in the halls of the Capitol, but there’s one thing Franken cannot suppress: that laugh.

His cackle, notorious among lawmakers, often pierces the din of conversations on the Senate floor during votes. He credits his distinctive laugh with helping him develop relationships across the aisle.

“If you talked to almost any senator, they would say, ‘Yeah, Al laughs a lot and really loudly,'” he said.

He acknowledges that as a comic he once used his humor “very pointedly” against the GOP. Among Franken’s several left-leaning political books are “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”

But as he has spent time getting to know Republicans, he has worked to give them a better understanding of his commitment to issues, Franken said.

“I’ve always considered myself a serious person,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s any contradiction between being funny and being serious. I don’t think of them as being opposites.”

He quickly found that humor can be an effective tool in legislating. “It’s the great bridge-maker,” he said.

Colleagues agree that a little sense of humor can go a long way in Washington’s hyper-polarized climate.

“He has a great laugh, a disarming laugh. It’s very genuine,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), a 30-year Senate veteran. “The one thing I always notice about Franken is that when we go into the Senate for a vote … more often than not you find him on the Republican side. Once in a while you can see them laugh together. Maybe Al says something funny or something like that. That does a lot to break the ice, believe me.”

Those close to Franken, and Franken himself, often seem exhausted by the continued discussion of his past job as it relates to his current one. That’s one reason he’s tended to refuse interviews to media outside Minnesota. At the start of a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, he asked skeptically, “The headline won’t have ‘No Joke’ in it?”

On a recent trip through rural western Minnesota, Franken touted his work on three agenda items that have generated little buzz in Washington: a new farm bill, legislation that overhauled federal worker training programs, and clean energy infrastructure projects. Despite the overall stalemate in Congress, Franken emphasized where he had delivered results, and seemed to revel in discussing them in minute detail.

It was Bill Clinton’s similar mastery of energy retrofits that impressed Franken so much, he says. Launching into a spot-on impersonation of the former president, Franken recalled how Clinton even offered to walk through the finer points with Franken’s staff. “I said, ‘Wow, Mr. President,'” Franken said. “It was hilarious just being on the phone with him for an hour and getting into local bonding issues.

Franken’s campaign is highlighting a list of relatively modest proposals that Franken helped turn into law: food safety and drug compounding bills, and a provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street overhaul bill that dealt with credit rating agencies. He also played a key role in ensuring that the so-called 80-20 rule was included in the Affordable Care Act. It requires insurers to spend a large portion of premium payments on actual health-care services and is seen as one of the more widely accepted components of Obama’s health-care law.

“Working Hard for Minnesota” is Franken’s rather unflashy slogan as he runs for a new term. And in the campaign ahead, it appears that both parties are content to focus on Franken’s legislative resume rather than his comedic past.

Franken’s Republican opponent would rather highlight Franken’s votes to support Obama policies than what he’d done before going to the Senate.

“I have no interest in what Al Franken did 25 years ago, absolutely no interest,” Mike McFadden said. “I do have an interest in terms of what he’s done over the last 5.5 years in Washington.”

Republican colleagues who have worked with Franken were reluctant to say much about their partnership. Former Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, whom Franken narrowly defeated in 2008, scoffed at the idea that Franken had accomplished much since replacing him.

“He’s touting the fact that he’s got a few provisions (passed) in six years,” Coleman said. “That’s not a workhorse. That’s an invisible horse.”

If anyone is playing for laughs, it’s McFadden. His most recent ad employs a Franken impersonator struggling to launch his boat in one of the state’s 10,000 lakes. (The message: Franken votes with Obama 97 percent of the time.) Another ad ends with the Republican on the receiving end of a football to the groin, prompting him to voice the “I approve this message” disclaimer in a high pitch.

Franken supporters say the focus on his accomplishments is an implicit acknowledgment of how successful he’s been at being accepted by all sides as a credible legislator.

“They spent so much money in his first campaign making him look like a buffoon,” said Rep. Tim Walz (D-MN). “You’re with him for five minutes and you see that’s not true.”

Photo: Minneapolis Star Tribune/MCT/Elizabeth Flores

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