Minnesota Senate; The race that won’t end
MINNEAPOLIS — There are no voters left to persuade. But as Minnesota’s U.S. Senate race heads toward a statewide recount, the bare-knuckle fight between Republican Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken continues like Election Day had never come and gone.
"Franken campaign attempts to stuff ballot box at the last minute," blared a Monday press release from the Coleman campaign. That came just two days after Team Franken characterized a Coleman legal filing as a "sneak attack to stop counting of ballots."
Election Day, which once promised relief from months of nasty mud-slinging, now stands simply as the day the race shifted from the paid airwaves to the legal arena. Both campaigns are just as furiously pumping out news releases, calling news conferences, recruiting volunteers and pressing donors for cash to carry on the fight.
After the two candidates spent nearly $40 million combined — most of it on ads tarring the other — Coleman leads by about 200 votes out of almost 3 million cast. An automatic recount is to start next week.
"This is an extraordinarly close and bitterly fought election, and both candidates have reason to think that they may have won," said Kathryn Pearson, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. "They’re not going to let the final stage of this go down without a fight as well."
For both campaigns, that’s meant an approach similar to a traditional election campaign: Staking out a message, and repeating it ad nauseam.
The Coleman mantra is that a small lead is still a lead and the incumbent, at least for now, is the winner. To drive home that point, Coleman’s Republican colleagues in the Senate have kept up a steady stream of kudos for his victory.
"Congratulations to Sen. Coleman on being re-elected by the voters of Minnesota," said a statement from Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., after Coleman’s lead survived the results of canvassing by Minnesota’s counties (a step that precedes the recount).
At the same time, the Coleman campaign has kept up a drip of press releases and public comments raising suspicions about a steady erosion of his lead — by several hundred votes over several days. "We’re not going to sit idly by, while mysterious, statistically dubious changes in vote totals take place," Coleman’s attorney, Fritz Knaak, said over the weekend.
Franken has his own message: "We don’t yet know who won the election, but with your help, we’ll make sure that every vote is counted fairly and accurately," read a Tuesday e-mail message from campaign manager Stephanie Schriock asking for volunteers to help watch the recount.
The Franken team also worked to counter Knaak’s suggestions that the shift in vote totals toward Franken were out of the ordinary. They prepared and distributed a series of historic tables showing that such shifts have not been unusual.
"Norm Coleman knows better" than to label the vote shifts improbable and statistically dubious, the Franken campaign alleged in a press release.
Keeping the back-and-forth at high boil has required both teams to proceed more or less as if the election never happened. "It feels like it just hasn’t ended," said Cullen Sheehan, Coleman’s campaign manager.
Coleman has kept the roughly 30 paid full- and part-time staffers it had before the election. Franken’s campaign wouldn’t say how many have stayed on, but all the top staffers have. Workers for both campaigns — who already had been "burning the candle at both ends" for months, in Sheehan’s words, now talk of having to cancel vacation plans, extend apartment leases and generally juggle their personal lives.
Jess McIntosh, press secretary for the Franken campaign, said: "Right now everyone is wondering whether we’ll be having Thanksgiving turkey at campaign headquarters."