Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to appoint his lieutenant governor and close ally, Tina Smith, to Al Franken’s seat, three people familiar with the Democratic governor’s thinking said.
But that appointment would be just the start of an upheaval in Minnesota. Part of the reason Smith could be heading to the Senate, the sources said, is that she has indicated no interest in running for Congress in the past and would not run for the remainder of Franken’s term, which expires in 2020, in a 2018 special election. That would clear the way for a wide open Democratic primary next year.
Franken’s sudden fall under a deluge of sexual harassment allegations has prompted Democrats to suddenly consider a fast-approaching special election for a once-safe seat — and given Republicans an unexpected opportunity in a state President Donald Trump lost by just 1 point in 2016. But installing Smith or another placeholder in the seat would separate the appointment from potentially fractious Democratic primary politics, giving other Democrats the opportunity to fight on a level playing field in a special primary. Additionally, appointing a woman to fill Franken’s role would serve as a symbolic rebuke to Franken in the wake of the allegations against him, Minnesota Democrats pointed out.
“[Smith] really gets Minnesota, she gets the players, she has great built-up relationships,” said a Democratic operative with long experience in Minnesota. “She makes practical sense, and she would be a good bridge builder.”
Franken announced Thursday he would be resigning within the next few weeks. Already, a number of high-profile Minnesota Democrats — including Rep. Keith Ellison, the Democratic National Committee deputy chair, and Rep. Tim Walz, who is currently running for governor — are considered possible contenders to run for Franken’s seat.
It is not an opportunity ambitious Democrats were expecting anytime soon. Franken was popular until women came forward accusing him of inappropriate touching and sexual harassment, and well-liked Sen. Amy Klobuchar is considered a lock for reelection in 2018.
Dayton could opt to appoint a senator who would run for the rest of Franken’s term next year, giving that person the power of incumbency and more time to build up seniority. But the governor is currently leaning toward giving the seat to a temporary placeholder, giving divided Democrats the chance to choose the next senator through the electoral process instead of by gubernatorial choice. Dayton’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Republicans also said Wednesday that Franken’s departure has opened up an opportunity they weren’t expecting for years.
“This presents a major opportunity for Republicans in Minnesota,” said GOP operative Brian McClung, a former top aide to ex-Gov. Tim Pawlenty. “Republicans here are going to be energized by the chance to replace Al Franken. We continue to believe that Norm Coleman beat him the first time around.”
Smith, the lieutenant governor, is a former marketing professional who served as chief of staff to former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. She worked at the mayor’s office in 2007, when the Interstate 35W bridge collapsed in Minneapolis, and played a role in helping rebuild the bridge in the months that followed.
Smith has worked with Dayton since 2010, first on his campaign and as his chief of staff and later as his running mate. Smith earlier this year passed on a run for governor to replace Dayton and signaled she might not be interested in running for office again at all.
“I feel very confident in that decision and actually really energized by being able to put all of my focus on the next, basically, two years left in the term and do this job that I really love,” Smith told the Star-Tribune at the time.
That is part of Smith’s appeal as a potential placeholder. And it means the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota would have an open contest for Franken’s seat, meeting in late spring for the party endorsement process and then holding a primary next August. Because there is relatively little time between Minnesota’s primaries and the November general election, Democrats in the state hope they can coalesce around a candidate next spring.
Minnesota Democrats were sharply divided last year over the presidential race, and a sense of division lingers. Sen. Bernie Sanders won the primary caucuses in the state and some rural Democrats ultimately voted for Trump, unnerving urban Democrats in Minneapolis and St. Paul area who tend to dominate state politics.
A number of Democrats currently running to replace Dayton could become candidates for Franken’s seat, if he were to resign. That includes Walz and Attorney General Lori Swanson, who has not announced a bid for governor but has often been mentioned as a potential candidate. Ilhan Omar, a Somali-American state representative, was circulated as another potential candidate for the Senate seat on Wednesday.
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