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Mike McFadden tries to break Al Franken's cool in first debate

Senator Al Franken squared off with Republican opponent Mike McFadden Wednesday. Polls show Franken leading by a solid margin despite barely winning in 2008.
Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, left, and Republican challenger Mike McFadden enjoy a laugh before their debate, on Oct. 1, 2014, in Duluth, Minn (Photo by Jim Mone/AP)
Democratic U.S. Sen. Al Franken, left, and Republican challenger Mike McFadden enjoy a laugh before their debate, on Oct. 1, 2014, in Duluth, Minn

Democratic Senator Al Franken and Republican businessman Mike McFadden met for their first debate on Wednesday morning, tangling over the war on ISIS, a proposed mining project, and health care.

McFadden said Franken had been “Washingtonized” and accused him of hewing closely to President Obama’s agenda. During a question on foreign policy, Franken said it was “easy to score political points from the bleachers,” and accused his opponent of failing to take a clear position on addressing the Syrian conflict earlier.

With just over a month until Election Day, debate season is kicking into high gear with a number scheduled that feature Democratic incumbents in closely contested races. Later on Wednesday, Alaska Democratic Senator Mark Begich will square off against Republican Dan Sullivan in the first of seven debates. Senator Kay Hagan is set to face off with Republican Thom Tillis next Tuesday, October 7, and Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor will debate Republican Congressman Tom Cotton on October 14.

Franken’s race, however, is not considered particularly competitive. A Star Tribune/Mason Dixon poll this month gave him a 13-point lead over McFadden and three independent polls in August showed an 8-9 point advantage for the incumbent.

While Minnesota is a blue-leaning state, it would have been easy to assume a few years ago that Franken would be one of the most vulnerable incumbents in the country heading into his re-election bid. Even in a historic Democratic year led by President Obama’s dominant presidential victory, he barely won his first race in 2008 against then-Senator Norm Coleman after a months-long recount process filled with legal twists and turns along the way.

At the time of his election, Franken was known for his long career as a "Saturday Night Live" writer and performer, his stint as a radio host on Air America, and for penning bestselling books like "Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations" and "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right". Running on the slogan “Bringing people together,” Coleman almost saved his seat by portraying Franken –- with a mountain of evidence from his writing – as a divisive partisan with closer ties to New York than Minneapolis. 

Six years later, McFadden deployed a similar strategy in Wednesday's debate.

"Al Franken,” he said, “is the Ted Cruz of the Democratic party.”

Jumping off one of his ads, he repeatedly called Franken “the most partisan senator in the Democratic Party,” citing an analysis by non-partisan analyst OpenCongress that tracks how often lawmakers vote with their party on key bills.

Franken, however, spent more than a half-decade preparing for exactly these types of attacks. He deliberately kept his work in Congress quiet, rarely talking to reporters outside the Minnesota press, and avoided the biting satirical rhetoric that characterized his comedy writing. While fellow Minnesotan Michelle Bachmann became a national star with her constantly over-the-top conservative rhetoric, Franken almost never made headlines with controversial comments. Instead, he focused on building a resume of work on less flashy policy items relevant to Minnesota interests, like the farm bill.

When McFadden called him “the most partisan senator” for the umpteenth time, he was ready with a Minnesota-centric response. 

“One of the things that I was attacked [for] by the McFadden campaign was voting to get rid of a tax break for companies that send jobs overseas,” Franken said. “I was in Winona a couple of years ago, TRW was closing a factory. I talked to a woman there in tears she told me how TRW made her train one of the Mexican workers who’s going to replace her in the job in Mexico.”