Why Coleman Lost

By Josh Kraushaar and Manu Raju
|  Wednesday, Jul 1, 2009  |  Updated 8:07 PM PDT
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Why Coleman Lost

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The Minnesota Supreme Court ruled 5-0 in favor of Al Franken (l.), paving the way for him to take the Senate seat once held by Norm Coleman (r.).

The Republican Party put an inordinate amount of faith in Norm Coleman’s long-shot legal challenge, spending a million bucks on the idea that he’d catch a break in court.

But like dominoes, each Coleman legal challenge failed, one after another, ruling after ruling, until the final, decisive blow Tuesday when the Minnesota Supreme Court picked apart Coleman’s arguments and awarded Democrat Al Franken the Senate seat.

Even though national Republicans talked a big game about taking this case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, Coleman had two key reasons to give up: he was running out of money and the state high court decisively rejected his constitutional arguments – undermining any case he might have made in federal court.

And there may have been another driving factor in Coleman’s concession: His political future. Coleman has been talked up as a potential candidate for governor, and once the state Supreme Court spoke, it would have been difficult to maintain credibility in his home state while holding up the Senate decision.

In an emotional concession speech Tuesday outside his home in St. Paul, Coleman wouldn’t talk about his political future, but said he reached his decision to concede because “we’d just been through a long process.”

“I wanted a chance to raise the issues that we thought had to be raised, to enfranchise a lot of folks whose votes hadn't been counted. We had a chance to do that,” Coleman said. “And we went to the highest court in this state. And so, I think the issues have been heard. You know, even the equal protection argument, this was the first court that fully considered it. They considered it, and they rejected our argument.”

Indeed, as much as Coleman’s camp said that voters were being disenfranchised, his legal arguments failed to resonate the way similar arguments did in Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Unlike the 2000 Florida presidential recount, when judges broke along ideological lines, the Minnesota judges hailed from all political stripes and issued clear unanimous decisions – failing to give Coleman an opening by issuing a dissenting opinion.

Minnesota election law was remarkably clear in spelling out the procedures for a recount in reviewing ballots to be considered and accepted, ensuring that the now infamous questions over punch-card ballots and hanging chads in 2000 wouldn’t be repeated.

“The opinion was decisive,” said Sarah Janecek, a GOP political analyst in Minnesota, pointing to the court’s rejection of Coleman’s equal-protection arguments. “So he really had nothing to sue any further on.”

If Coleman had kept going after losing a unanimous ruling, it would appear that the Republican Party was delaying the inevitable seating of Franken for purely political purposes, risking further damage to his political career and a party still trying to recover from last year’s elections.

“Coleman made a political calculation not to take it out of his home state,” said Craig Shirley, a GOP strategist.

The court rejected Coleman’s constitutional claims that his due process was violated and that the results ran afoul from the Constitution’s equal protection argument because election officials used different standards for gauging absentee ballots.

“No one should blame the lawyers here on the Coleman side,” said Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. “They just had a hard luck draw. I don’t know if Franken’s lawyers would have done any better if the numbers were reversed. … They [the Coleman legal team] had the facts and the law against them.” 

Coleman’s pocketbook also played a factor – given the millions he’s already raised since Election Day and the millions more he and the Republican Party would have to spend to continue to keep further appeals alive.

 

“Norm Coleman is busted financially,” said Larry Jacobs, an expert on state politics at the University of Minnesota. “He’s in debt for this campaign, he owes at least $100,000 for Al Franken’s attorney fees, he’s also got personal debt. This is a guy who [was] going to be much more cautious about winging this thing [for a Supreme Court review].”

Franken’s upcoming seating will give Democrats their biggest majority in the Senate in a generation, ensuring their party holds a 60-40 majority – enough to quash GOP filibusters if they stay united.

And with that, some Republicans see an ironic silver lining – Democrats have nobody else to blame if their agenda falls short even though that will be tough with an ideologically diverse caucus and the absences of Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who have been sidelined by illnesses. GOP strategists say it will solidify their argument heading into the 2010 elections that electing more Republicans would be a critical check on one-party dominance in Washington.

“The implications of this Senate race are particularly significant because the Democrats will now have 60 votes in the Senate,” said Sen. John Cornyn, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “With their supermajority, the era of excuses and finger-pointing is now over.”

Republican leaders were supportive of Coleman’s decision to concede, but some suggested that they would have been right behind him had he taken the case either to the U.S. Supreme Court or file a new suit in a federal district court.

“While I would have proudly stood behind Norm Coleman had he chosen to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, I know that his decision to withdraw from this race was not an easy one, but one that he felt was the best decision for the people of Minnesota,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

Alex Castellanos, a GOP media consultant, said in an interview that Franken’s win might “stimulate fundraising,” for Republicans. But, he added: “When you get beat by a comedian, you know your party’s at the nadir.”

In their news conferences Tuesday, both Franken and Coleman downplayed the impact of Franken becoming a filibuster-crushing 60th Democrat.

“As far as [being the 60th member of the Democratic Caucus] is concerned, 60 is a magic number and it isn’t because we know we have Republicans who are going to vote with the majority of Democrats on certain votes, and Republicans who are going to vote with the majority of Democrats on certain votes,” Franken said. ‘So it’s not quite a magic number as some people may say. But I hope we do get President Obama’s agenda through.”

Franken, who will hold a victory rally Wednesday and will be seated in the Senate next week, will assume coveted committee assignments on the Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee and the Judiciary Committee, allowing him to play a role in influencing the debates over health-care reform and the Supreme Court nomination of Sonia Sotomayor when Congress returns from its Fourth of July break.

But Coleman suggested at his news conference that his decision to concede was less about the impact on the Senate and more on his dimming chances.

And people who know him well seemed to share that view.

“I think he’d been prepared for this moment for a long time,” Janecek, who spoke to Coleman earlier this month. “There comes a point where it is what it is.”

John Bresnahan and Martin Kady II contributed to this story.

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