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Author Discusses Key Lessons of Minnesota Recount

While Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, captured the hearts of conservatives at the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minnesota, an array of attack ads bombarded the homes of families from St. Paul to Chickamaw Beach.

Writer Al Franken (D) and incumbent Sen. Norm Coleman (R) were neck-deep in a fierce fight for a seat in the Senate. Much of that fight involved their not-so-nice TV spots. In the ads, Franken reminded voters of Coleman’s ties to the then-unpopular President George W. Bush and Coleman reminded constituents that Franken was a comedian.

The RNC, as it turned out, provided Palin everlasting notoriety, but it did little to help Coleman’s chances. On the flip side, ironically, the very popular Barack Obama did not provide Franken with the boost that he was expecting either.

As a result, many Minnesotans were left to choose between two Senate candidates they didn’t like, and some voters expressed their disdain on paper ballots by drawing caricatures of the candidates and even writing in names of superheroes.

Franken, a former writer for “Saturday Night Live,” would go on to defeat Coleman in the nine-month recount that followed the elections. In the end, Coleman’s official margin of defeat was 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast in November 2008. Franken was finally seated in July 2009.

Jay Weiner, a serious sports journalist with an investigative eye, covered that convoluted recount for the upstart In “This Is Not Florida: How Al Franken Won the Minnesota Senate Recount,” Weiner illustrates every possible detail imaginable about this affair, including Franken’s staff meetings at McDonald’s and a profile of Coleman’s roommate in Washington, D.C.

The narrative is driven by the influences on the candidates from the national political machines. “This Is Not Florida” centers around two prominent attorneys: Marc Elias, the darling of the Democrats who led the recount for the Franken team, and Ben Ginsberg, who directed the GOP during the Bush v. Gore battle and was chief legal spokesman for Coleman.

Elias and Ginsberg would clash dramatically over the ensuing months, and Weiner conveys in-depth their mutual hatred, as well as their enthusiasm for politics.

“Two days after his rival Ginsberg splashed onto the scene, Elias showed his own stuff in the courtroom. For two months, members of the news media had witnessed his monologues, his staccato repeating of phrases for emphasis, his dramatic use of his big hands to form an imagined globe to describe the size of the ‘universe’ of absentee ballots, or his long arms sweeping the air as if to swat away flies when denigrating” the legal arguments from Coleman’s camp, the author writes.

The book is a stark and straightforward account of key lessons for any campaign to embrace if it finds itself in a recount. These lessons include having a formidable legal team, being aggressive politically, using multimedia skills when on message and having tons of money. The campaigns spent about $40 million combined.

But “there were troubling aspects to the Franken-Coleman recount,” Weiner writes. “This recount was expensive, and there’s something uncomfortable about that.”

In fact, the Franken-Coleman race altered the image of “nice” Minnesotans, perhaps permanently. Weiner suggests that after Republicans’ embarrassing loss, they will not play nice and will fight back with greater vengeance.