Franken, McFadden cap race with final debate

Published 9:55 am Monday, November 3, 2014

ST. PAUL — U.S. Sen. Al Franken and GOP challenger Mike McFadden met for a third and final debate Sunday evening, capping off a campaign that for McFadden and Republicans looks like the race that could have been.

The two candidates brought their mostly sleepy campaign to a close by agreeing with each other more than ever before at the debate hosted by Minnesota Public Radio.

Though they continued to spar over health care, foreign affairs and Franken’s voting record — carried over from debates past — McFadden and Franken agreed on the need for immigration reform and curtailing government surveillance programs. And McFadden professed support for net neutrality, an issue Franken has pushed hard in latter half of his term.

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Despite Franken’s narrow win in 2008 and promises from outside organizations to back McFadden this time around, the race never evolved into the drag-down fight some were predicting.

Republicans are bullish on their chances to gain six seats and win back the Senate majority thanks to a favorable map — 21 Democrats are up for re-election, with many in conservative-leaning states. But with vulnerable incumbent Democrats on the ropes in states such as North Carolina, Alaska and Colorado, outside Republican groups mostly skipped over Minnesota and spent their millions elsewhere.

McFadden ran an energetic campaign on his own, putting hundreds of miles on the campaign pickup truck every day for cozy gatherings across the state, but never narrowed Franken’s steady lead in public polling. The investment banker and first-time candidate held to his vow that his campaign wouldn’t tap into his considerable personal wealth.

Outside cash started to trickle into Minnesota as Election Day neared, with Democratic groups spending money on ads backing Franken. Independence USA PAC, a political action committee bankrolled by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, spent more than $500,000 in Minnesota to air an ad highlighting Franken’s legislative portfolio.

In Sunday’s debate, Franken sprinkled in the names of nearly a dozen GOP senators with whom he had worked on bills or amendments.

McFadden’s campaign said Franken’s image as a bipartisan workhorse doesn’t jibe with the facts, pointing to the oft-cited statistic that the freshman Democrat sided with President Barack Obama on 97 percent of votes since taking office in 2009.

“If you believe the president has done a good job, then vote for Al Franken,” McFadden said to close out Sunday night’s debate. “I fundamentally believe that we can be doing so much better in this country and in this state.”

For its part, Franken’s campaign hammered McFadden with a series of ads criticizing the Republican candidate’s business background, suggesting his firm avoided paying U.S. taxes and was responsible for layoffs.

In each case, McFadden decried those ads as false and misleading. His campaign rebutted an ad suggesting his firm was responsible for the closure of a Montana paper mill by producing bankruptcy documents showing another firm was involved in the deal.

But McFadden never matched Franken on the airwaves. Heading into the final stretch, Franken had outspent McFadden by a nearly 5-to-1 margin, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. McFadden continually refused to run similar attack ads, and the cavalry of outside GOP groups never came to Minnesota to rip Franken.

Though his own campaign has acknowledged it’s down in the polls, McFadden brushed off the lack of national support.

“When the people of Minnesota wake up Wednesday, Nov. 5, and I’m the next senator from this great state of Minnesota … America might be surprised, but Minnesotans won’t be surprised,” McFadden said.