Franken’s Minnesota Seat to Be Filled by Tina Smith, a Democrat
Posted December 13, 2017 7:12 p.m. EST
Updated December 13, 2017 8:31 p.m. EST
ST. PAUL, Minn. — The campaign started immediately.
Five minutes after being named as Al Franken’s temporary replacement in the U.S. Senate, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith of Minnesota said Wednesday that she would run for the job next fall, in an election for the two years left in Franken’s term.
Smith’s appointment keeps a Democrat in Franken’s seat for at least a year, but also cues up a seismic 2018 election that could shift the balance of power in Minnesota and, quite possibly, in the Senate.
Smith, a far less famous politician than Franken, whose resignation came amid accusations of sexual harassment, seemed eager to avoid being seen as a senator foisted upon Minnesotans.
“Anybody who knows the voters of Minnesota knows that they can’t be told what to do,” Smith said at the state capitol after Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, announced that he had appointed her. “My purpose is to go out and ask for those voters’ support, and that is my job to do.”
Some Democrats here remain conflicted about Franken’s resignation, announced after some of his colleagues in Washington called on him to leave over the accusations. And Republicans, who control the Legislature but have struggled in statewide races, sense an opportunity to pick off the seat, which they had expected was out of reach until at least 2020.
Next year’s ballot will also include an open race for governor — Dayton is not seeking another term — and an election for Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s position. Klobuchar, a well-known Democrat, is expected to run for another six-year term.
“The opportunity for Minnesota Republicans is actually quite bright,” said Jennifer Carnahan, the chairwoman of Minnesota’s Republican Party. She added that President Donald Trump’s narrow defeat here in 2016, four years after Mitt Romney lost the state by more than 7 percentage points, indicated the most favorable political landscape for her side in more than a decade. “I think we’re definitely a key player when you look at the national map in a way that maybe we haven’t been in the past.”
Several prominent Republicans had already lined up for the governor’s race, and some might now consider challenging Smith for the Senate. Carnahan criticized Smith as a member of the “very far left” whose appointment “was calculated to appease the Democrats out in Washington.”
Smith, a longtime figure in Democratic politics and a former executive with the regional Planned Parenthood organization, spent most of her career behind the scenes before becoming lieutenant governor in 2015. Those who have worked with Smith described her as smart and able to work across party lines, but also politically savvy and committed to Democratic issues.
R.T. Rybak, a former Minneapolis mayor for whom Smith served as chief of staff, said he had nicknamed her “the velvet hammer” because she is “tough when she has to be.”
“She is just that rare person who somehow can find a way to crack even the toughest seals people put up,” Rybak said. “But nobody should mistake that for her being a wimp.”
But Smith may still need to introduce herself to regular voters. On the snow-dusted sidewalks of St. Paul, friendly political turf for Smith, some Minnesotans said they knew little or nothing about their soon-to-be senator.
“I wish he would have appointed someone with bigger name recognition in Minnesota, with a better chance of getting re-elected,” said Carrie Lindgren, a Democrat who said she was excited by the Democrats’ Senate win in Alabama the previous night.
Rolf Lowenberg-DeBoer of White Bear Lake, said he was pleased to see a woman appointed to Franken’s seat but did not know enough about Smith to pass judgment.
“I don’t know if she’ll be able to win an election,” said Lowenberg-DeBoer, a Democrat who said he was concerned Republicans could make gains here next year. “She hasn’t been on the campaign trail that much, at least not by herself. So that’s a big unknown.”
Others questioned whether Franken, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who had been discussed as a potential presidential candidate in 2020, should have been pushed to resign, suggesting that his behavior was less egregious than claims against Trump.
“I don’t think he had to go,” said Al Rosario, a carpenter from Inver Grove Heights. “I feel he’s a comedian. He was probably just joking.” Rosario said he had not heard of Smith.
Smith praised Franken’s Senate record, calling him “a real champion for this state.” But she also said she saw a necessary shift underway in attitudes relating to sexual harassment.
Two congressmen — John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Trent Franks, R-Ariz. — have also announced their exits amid allegations of sexual harassment. And Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for Senate in Alabama, lost his election Tuesday after being accused of sexual misconduct.
“I think in some ways, this sea change is being led by young women who tell women of my generation that maybe some of the things we put up with during our lives we shouldn’t have to put up with,” said Smith, 59, who was born in New Mexico but has spent most of her adult life in Minnesota. “And that is a good thing, and it is so important that we don’t slide backwards.”
Dayton praised his lieutenant governor as “extremely intelligent, quick to learn and always open to hearing others’ views,” and endorsed her candidacy in the 2018 election.
Even as Smith outlined her goals in her new job, her start date remained unclear. Dayton said he had yet to receive any official notice of resignation from Franken, but expected him to leave office in early January.
Franken released a statement Wednesday saying that Smith “will make an excellent” senator and that he looked “forward to working with her on ensuring a speedy and seamless transition.” He did not provide a resignation date.
Smith’s swearing-in to the Senate will set off a new round of political musical chairs here. Under Minnesota law, a Republican state senator is next in line to become lieutenant governor, which could put the party’s narrow majority in that chamber in jeopardy. Some have suggested that a special legislative session may be called to sort out the issue.