The fact that the Minnesota Senate recount has moved to the lawsuit phase is a surprise to no one – with an election decided by a few hundred votes, there is no doubt either candidate who ended up on the short end of the recount would take their case to the courts.

As it turns out, it is Norm Coleman who trails Al Franken after the recount phase, and so he is the plaintiff in the trial that begins on Monday. So what exactly are Coleman’s hopes and expectations as to what will happen at the end of the judicial phase? There are several plausible and implausible scenarios, with Coleman assuming a different role in each:

1. The Victim. One possibility is that the Coleman camp, who has no doubt observed and taken notes on every controversial (non-sealed absentee) ballot statewide, has a bona fide belief, once their claims are aired in a court of law, that they will indeed emerge as the candidate with the most votes. While many election law experts rate the odds as not so good for Coleman to come out victorious even if the alleged irregularities in the vote count and alleged inconsistent standards for accepting absentee ballots are remedied in his favor, it is plausible Coleman believes he is ‘fighting the good fight’ towards an obtainable end – his old U.S. Senate seat.

2. The Gambler. It is possible that Coleman and his attorneys also view their court challenge as a long shot as well. If, for example, the campaign believes it has a one in ten chance, the reasoning would be that the payoff (a U.S. Senate seat) is worth the time and cost and potential loss of favor with Minnesotans. As such, a gambler plays his hand with a straight face, not letting on to the odds he faces, and demonstrates to the public, with great conviction, that he is blazing a righteous path to get ‘every vote counted’ and to prevent the ‘disenfranchisement of Minnesotans.’

3. The Magician. It is also conceivable that Coleman hopes the court battle will get strung out long enough and create so much chaos and ambiguity about the 2008 election results, that (as has been floated by some in the media) there is a groundswell for a new election (though the circumstances were different, a new election was ordered in the famous 1974-1975 U.S. Senate election(s) in New Hampshire). However unlikely, should Coleman create enough of a cloud of illegitimacy over the election results and vote-counting process to somehow force a new election, this would be a brilliant sleight of hand: as the further and further we get from November 4, 2008, the further Franken is removed from the Democratic ‘winds of change’ and the coattails of Barack Obama. In short, the longer Minnesota’s Senate seat remains in doubt and the trial drags on, the greater the likelihood, in the analysis of Smart Politics, that Coleman would emerge victorious in a 2009 rematch. As documented earlier this month by Smart Politics, Coleman has not yet experienced a loss in popularity statewide due to the post-Election Day events.

4. The Spoiler. The most unflattering hypothetical would be that the former senior Senator is proceeding with the court challenge with the full knowledge and expectation that Al Franken is going to emerge the victor. There are several potential reasons Coleman would do this:

a) Even though Coleman believes Franken will emerge victorious, he feels he was wronged during the recount process and wishes a court hearing to air his grievances – even though the airing of such grievances will not alter the outcome. A form of public therapy, if you will.

b) Coleman is trying to undermine Franken’s eventual ascendancy to his former Senate seat out of personal animosity – an outgrowth of the disdain created by the most expensive and perhaps most brutal Senate race in Minnesota history. The idea here is if Coleman cannot win the war, perhaps he can win one of two more battles along the way, and turn Franken’s 6-year term into a 5.5-year term.

c) Coleman is trying to undermine Franken’s inevitable victory to the greatest extent possible, in the hopes of weakening him for some political (not personal) motive. For example, he may wish to weaken Franken so that the DFLer is even more vulnerable in 2014 for whichever Republican nominee awaits him (be it Coleman or someone else).

5. The Al Gore. One further possibility is that Coleman, although knowing he will lose the court challenge, is hoping such a challenge will give him the opportunity for a more graceful exit, a la Al Gore in December 2000. Although it is unlikely Coleman fancies himself a nominee for a future Nobel Peace Prize, it is conceivable he could be laying the groundwork to remake his image as a public servant who steps aside before the final bell is rung in order “to put the people of Minnesota first (for example, by not appealing an unfavorable court decision). While some might say Coleman would stand to gain the most favor with Minnesotans by stepping aside now, this is an untenable position within the Minnesota Republican Party who are adamant that Franken does not go to Washington D.C without a fight.

If he is indeed able to negotiate a graceful exit at some point in the coming weeks, would Coleman use the potential rewards reaped by such newfound political capital for some future political end? Such as, for example, a 2010 run for the Governor’s mansion should Tim Pawlenty step aside? Wait – these are just hypothetical situations, right? Right.


  1. anonymous on January 25, 2009 at 11:50 pm

    You suggested in the paragraph titled ‘The Magician’ that Norm Coleman has the upper hand in winning a new election, should that be the outcome of this mess. I beg to differ. I think that most Minnesotans are finding his reluctance to let go and his subsequent continuance to drag on this process annoying at best, not to mention all the costs involved given the state of the budget deficit. There are bigger fish to fry at this point, and people want to hurry up and get down to business. Thus, I would expect Al Franken to win by an even larger margin, especially when you take into account Dean Barkley’s absence on the ticket this time around. This whole situation is quite funny considering Coleman’s comments the night of the election when he criticized Franken for not accepting defeat right then and there.

  2. Eric Ostermeier on January 26, 2009 at 12:04 am

    > Thus, I would expect Al Franken to win by an even larger
    > margin

    Well, whoever wins, it is almost certainly going to be by a larger margin – that I grant you. And it is entirely plausible what you say could come to pass under such a hypothetical.

    However, I do think, under this scenario, one cannot discount the fact there would be a much different looking electorate than what we saw in November 2008 – the election might have depressed turnout probably closer to 60 percent than 80 percent. As you suggest, many people WILL have moved on to bigger issues – balancing their family budget, worried about losing their job etc. And, as such, will not turn out to vote. (And, probably, to the benefit of Coleman).

  3. Steve Schier on January 26, 2009 at 10:49 am

    There is a broader uncertainty hypothesis underlying your analysis as well. If the Coleman people really don’t know what is the probable outcome, all of the above outcomes are possible, and all of them contain some important benefits for Coleman. And an uncertainty assumption might be the most serviceable assumption for them at present.

  4. Sheila on February 8, 2009 at 6:43 am

    It’s not just Minnesotans who await the outcome. Political obserers nationwide are fed up with Coleman’s daily smears. He does NOT capture a thing except ill-will. Al Franken won the votes needed for the seat in the US Senate. The court should have recognized that and refused to proceed on dragging out the process.

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