Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to appoint his lieutenant governor and close ally, Tina Smith, to Al Franken’s seat if the Democratic senator resigns on Thursday, three people familiar with the Democratic governor’s thinking said.
But that appointment would be just the start of a huge upheaval in Minnesota. Part of the reason Smith could be heading to the Senate, the sources said, is because 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 if Franken steps down.
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’s office tweeted late Wednesday that he has not decided whether to resign, but he has an announcement scheduled for Thursday and faced calls to leave the Senate from more than half of his caucus on Wednesday, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. 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.
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.”