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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Minnesota’s Democratic Governor Set to Name Successor for Al Franken

Sen. Al Franken’s decision to resign clears the way for another potentially competitive Senate race in 2018, adding to the nation’s broad midterm battlefield.


Janet Hook

Sen. Al Franken’s decision to resign clears the way for another potentially competitive Senate race in 2018, adding to the nation’s broad midterm battlefield.

Mr. Franken’s temporary successor will be appointed by Minnesota’s Democratic governor, Mark Dayton, who said Thursday he would make his decision “in the next couple of days.” The seat would then be subject to a special election in November 2018 to fill the remaining two years of Mr. Franken’s term, which expires in January 2021.

A key question is whether the governor picks a temporary successor who has no interest in running for the seat, or someone who does and will use the next year to get a leg up as an incumbent.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, a longtime associate of Mr. Dayton’s, is considered a likely pick. Local newspapers speculate that she would be picked as a short-term “caretaker” who would serve only until the November 2018 special election.

Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.) announced on the Senate floor on Thursday that he will resign in the coming weeks after dozens of Democratic colleagues called for him to step down over mounting allegations of sexual misconduct. Photo: Reuters

If a caretaker were named to the post, that would turn the special election into a wide-open contest in an already busy year in Minnesota politics. Because Mr. Dayton isn’t running for re-election in 2018, the open governor’s seat has attracted a phalanx of candidates in both parties. The state’s other senator, Amy Klobuchar, is also on the ballot, although she is considered a safe bet for re-election.

Other Democrats considered possible appointees are Attorney General Lori Swanson, and members of the House delegation including Reps. Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison. Rep. Tim Walz has thrown his hat in the governor race, but is also seen as a potential Senate pick.

Minnesota voters typically back Democrats in statewide races, and have sided with the Democratic candidate in presidential races going back decades.

Still, there are signs the 2018 race could be competitive. Mr. Franken won his seat by just 312 votes in 2008, before winning his re-election comfortably in 2014. And in the 2016 presidential race, Democrat Hillary Clinton won the state by just 1.5 percentage points over Republican Donald Trump. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report is initially rating the race a tossup, at least until the field of candidates takes shape.

The Republicans have a 52-48 advantage in the Senate, so Democrats need to pick up a net of three seats to flip control.

Republicans come into the 2018 race with a structural advantage. They have to defend just eight seats next fall, while the Democrats have to defend 26—10 of which are in states Republican President Donald Trump won. Among the GOP’s top targets are Missouri and Indiana.

But Mr. Trump’s low approval ratings and the mixed public receptions for the GOP health-care and tax efforts have given Democrats hopes for hanging on to their current numbers and picking up some GOP seats as well, in states such as Nevada and Arizona. On Thursday,  former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, jumped into that state’s Senate race, potentially making that contest competitive.

Democrats also have a chance to pick up a seat in the Alabama special election next week, where Democrat Doug Jones faces GOP nominee Roy Moore. That race in the solidly red state was roiled by sexual misconduct allegations against Mr. Moore, which he has denied.

Write to Janet Hook at janet.hook@wsj.com