- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, who is said to be undergoing “decompression” after narrowly losing re-election in a brutal, eight-month recount battle with a TV comedian, is thinking of running for governor again.

Mr. Coleman, who was one of the Republican Party’s bright, up-and-coming Senate stars, is now far from the maddening political crowd, quietly and happily spending his time at Harvard’s Institute of Politics - and in no hurry to decide about his future political plans. Maybe not until next year.

But Republican officials in Minnesota and party advisers here say if he intends to seek the Republican Party’s gubernatorial nomination, he had better make his decision quickly, well before next April’s state party convention.

However, he may not be ready to jump back into the political fray after enduring one of the most punishing Senate battles of 2008 - a year when voters were taking out their frustrations over a declining economy and the Republican Party, and Democrats were riding a political wave that swept them into the White House and strengthened their hold on Congress.

Mr. Coleman, a freshman senator, seemed assured of winning his bid for re-election against former “Saturday Night Live” comedian Al Franken, a political neophyte not taken very seriously at the time.

But this is Minnesota, a state that has earned a reputation for its quirky politically populism and odd-ball candidates who have knocked off major establishment candidates in both parties.

Mr. Coleman well remembers his failed bid for governor in 1998 when he faced Democratic state Attorney General Hubert H. Humphrey III, owner of one of the most famous political names in Minnesota history, and a relatively little-known professional wrestler, actor and third-party candidate named Jesse Ventura -who went on to beat them both.

Then came another painful defeat at the hands of Mr. Franken who took office in July after the state’s Supreme Court unanimously ruled in June that the late night TV star had won the seat by a paper-thin 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast.

Mr. Coleman has retreated from politics since then, working on establishing a public policy institute and lecturing at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and biding his time for the next opportunity. It seemed to come earlier this month in a Rasmussen poll that showed Mr. Coleman led a large field of gubernatorial Republican hopefuls by 50 percent.

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, exploring a presidential candidacy in 2012, has said he would not seek a third term and party leaders think Mr. Coleman has a good shot at keeping the governorship in Republican Party hands. He would be running in a political climate where the Democrats’ brand seems to be losing its luster, President Obama’s job approval poll numbers have fallen below 50 percent, unemployment continues to climb, and the Republican Party is expected to make gains in a number of governor’s races next year, in the West and especially in the Midwest.

But state party leaders tell Mr. Coleman that if he runs for governor, he had better announce his plans sooner rather than later.

“If he is interested, he’d definitely be a force in the Republican nomination process and in the general election. He needs to decide what he wants to do. If he’s going to run, he needs to start by the end of the year, Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton told me.

“Minnesota, despite its reputation of going Democratic in presidential elections, is not as Democratic as some think. The Democrats have not elected a governor in this state since 1986,” Mr. Sutton said.

Former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a leader in his party’s ascendency in the House in the 1980s and early 1990s and remains a high-powered national party adviser, also thinks Mr. Coleman’s chances are strong, but with some words of caution.

“Norm came through the vote recount process really quite well. He remains very strong with Republican voters and his reputation is still positive in the state as a whole,” Mr. Weber told me.

“The problem Norm faces is that the party’s endorsing convention will be held in April, earlier than before. If Norm doesn’t decide until March or April, it will be too late,” Mr. Weber said. Republican officials in the state tell me the Republican Partyconvention’s choice is rarely overturned in the September party primary, and if Mr. Coleman gets in too late to win the convention’s endorsement, he would have a harder time overcoming the winner in a statewide ballot contest.

Despite his popularity in the party, “It would be tough even for Norm Coleman to buck that tradition,” Mr. Weber said.

No clear Democratic front-runner has emerged. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback and former Sen. Mark Dayton drew 30 percent each, with the rest of the field in single digits.

For now, however, Mr. Sutton says Mr. Coleman remains popular in his party. “There is this feeling that he is some sort of martyr after having the election stolen from him. The vote count was brutal and gut-wrenching. He’s decompressing from that.”

As for his own plans, Mr. Coleman told the Harvard Crimson that for the time being, he’s happy “waking up in the morning and reading the paper and realizing that nobody is trying to kill you politically today. I’m a public servant at heart, but I haven’t made a final decision on whether being the governor is the best way to do that.”

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.

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