MEMBERS ONLY: The Political Tragedy of Al Franken

by Bob Cesca

Yesterday was a dark day for Al Franken and the Democratic Party, saved only by the party’s responsible behavior in the wake of several new allegations against Franken, including one published in The Atlantic by Tina Dupuy, who described how she was groped by the now disgraced senator from Minnesota. 

Throughout the day, one Democratic senator after the next called on Franken to resign, clearly projecting the party’s adulthood in deep contrast with the Republicans, who’ve, by the way, amplified their cynical and win-at-any-cost support for both Donald Trump, himself a sexual predator, as well as U.S. Senate candidate and accused child molester, Roy Moore. 

In all ways ethical and moral, the Dems did the right thing, and it appears that as of this writing, Franken will resign from the Senate on Thursday at the earliest, though this is unconfirmed. Should he leave the Senate, however, the Democrats’ integrity will have to carry with it some electoral heft given that the midterm election next year is set to be a supremely challenging one to say the least.

Pre-Franken, the Senate map for 2018 was already a pain in the ass for anyone hoping to strip the Republicans of their majorities in not one but both chambers of Congress. 

On the House side, and as with every general election, all 435 seats are up for a vote. The current partisan split means the Democrats need to pick up 25 seats — 25 more seats and the Dems will win back the House. As a matter of perspective, the Dems netted 31 seats in the “Housequake” election of 2006, so it’s certainly not impossible. And given the party’s current momentum, the Democrats could pull it off as long as turnout is high. Indeed, it’s not only possible, it’s mandatory the Democrats wrest control away from the Trumpers and Freedom Caucus as a means of blocking the Trump agenda to destroy everything achieved in the last nine years.

The Senate is an entirely different story. Even with landslide turnouts in every race, it’ll be nearly impossible for the Democrats to pick up the three seats they need for a simple majority of 51 members. It turns out the slate of contested seats heavily favors the Republicans. Out of 33 Senate races, Republicans will only have to defend eight seats. The Democrats, on the other hand, will have to defend a whopping 25 seats. Put another way, and generally speaking, in order for the Dems to gain a majority, they’ll have to successfully defend all 25 contested seats — plus, they’ll have to win three of the contested Republican seats. All of this just to pick up the three seats they need for a majority. Obviously, there are variations on this formula, but the odds are grim.

Al Franken’s resignation means instead of defending 25 seats, the Democrats will have to defend 26 seats in November. (The permanent replacement for Franken will be decided by Minnesota voters on Election Day, 2018.) 

But let’s say Franken resigns and Jones loses. The balance of power will remain exactly the same as it is today: 52-48. For now! 

The Democratic governor of Minnesota will likely appoint a fellow Democrat in Franken’s place, so the 52-48 seat status quo will remain intact. But we know Franken’s seat will be contested, allowing the Trump machine, the Mercers, the Kochs, Fox News, the Russians, and the GOP’s ongoing voter suppression efforts to possibly install a Republican in Franken’s seat. Norm Coleman, for instance. If a Republican takes Franken’s seat next year instead of 2020 when Franken would’ve been up for re-election, we’ll go from 52-48 to potentially 53-47 not including the results of any other midterm Senate races.

Fuck.

Ultimately, an additional Minnesota Senate campaign is a race the party didn’t have to deal with — or pay for — until Franken. On top of that, Franken’s departure puts additional pressure on Doug Jones to defeat Roy Moore.

The short version is this: Al Franken’s irresponsible behavior has jeopardized the Democratic Party’s chances of winning both chambers by adding an additional contested seat, while heightening the already stratospheric stakes of the Jones-Moore contest.

Okay, enough wonkery. 

Should the Senate Democrats have demanded Franken’s resignation in the first place? Given the new allegations, absolutely. It’s surely painful given Franken’s relatively minor offense when compared to Trump or Moore, but we have no choice but to ask ourselves: Should we take sexual harassment victims seriously only when it’s politically expedient? Of course not. 

That said, it’s ludicrous to unilaterally impugn Franken, while not also demanding Donald Trump’s resignation as well. Every Democratic senator who stood up to demand Franken’s departure should’ve also insisted that Trump step down as well — not to mention insisting that Mitch McConnell refuse to seat Roy Moore, should he manage to win. Clearly, the reprehensible actions of both Trump and Moore far exceed anything Franken is guilty of. Actually, knowing the greater severity of Trump’s and Moore’s crimes, resignation should be just for starters.

Nevertheless, knowing the dicey Senate map next year, the Dems needed to be a little more focused on winning than how they comported themselves today. My attitude about the Democratic Party, stretching back to early 2016 has been: Don’t get happy. Don’t get complacent. Don’t assume any seats are safe. On social media throughout the day, I read comments by more than a few Democrats suggesting the electoral math isn’t such a big deal, knowing the liberalism of Minnesota and the odds of another Democrat taking over Franken’s seat. Given the stakes, every seat and every vote is a big fucking deal. Laughing off a Senate seat, regardless of the state, is foolish and nearsighted.

For all these reasons, I have no choice but to walk away from being a Franken admirer, pre-scandal. Like Anthony Weiner, his behavior reflects staggeringly poor judgment; plus, he’s made 2018 that much more challenging — an election that literally requires all hands on deck. We’re staring irreparable damage in the face. Walking away from 2018 without a majority in one or both chambers of Congress is simply not an option. 

For a party that’s had trouble winning congressional seats lately, and given the awfulness of voter purges, voter suppression, voter ID and, yeah, the ongoing Russian attack, Franken further lengthened the odds of stopping Trumpism cold. And that’s unforgivable.