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Al Franken Vs. the Unknown #MNSEN

Franken is running for re-election and so far the GOP bench to challenge him is thin. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Franken is running for re-election and so far the GOP bench to challenge him is thin. (Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The first Minnesota Republican to challenge Democratic Sen. Al Franken piqued both curiosity and optimism within the state’s GOP circles. Finance executive Mike McFadden, who heads a Minneapolis management firm, is a largely unknown quantity in state politics, aside from a few donations.

Some Republicans think that may be one of McFadden’s best assets in this Democratic-leaning state, which hasn’t voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1972. They’re also realistic about his chances against someone who is now a formidable incumbent.

“He’s a very personable guy. That’s obviously a good asset,” said one Republican strategist who’s worked on statewide campaigns. “But when you’re going from basically high school ball to the major leagues — that’s a big jump.”

Those who have actually met McFadden were impressed and they are genuinely optimistic about this being a competitive race, especially with a midterm electorate that tends to be more favorable for Republicans than in presidential years.

In an interview Thursday, McFadden made it clear he has no plans to hash out the “divisive issues” that have plagued some Republican Senate candidates over the past couple of cycles. Upset over the lack of substantial job growth and inefficient spending on education, McFadden plans to draw on his business experience and role in launching an inner-city high school to make his case to voters.

“Minnesota has a legacy of electing Republicans for a long period of time,” McFadden said. “Our heritage is bipartisan representation. And my objective goal is going to be to bring that balance back to Minnesota because that’s who we are.”

With national Democrats defending seats in seven states that President Barack Obama lost in 2012, Franken is among the least of their worries. Despite just a 312-vote winning margin in 2008 over Republican incumbent Norm Coleman, there has been a dearth of interest among elected Republicans to take him on.

Since joining the Senate, the former comedian has mostly kept his head down and stayed out of national headlines. Franken has also become a fundraising juggernaut. He outraised every other Senate incumbent in the first quarter of the 2014 cycle and ended March with just more than $2 million in the bank.

Still, less than 24 hours after McFadden entered the race, the Minnesota affiliate of the left-leaning ProgressNow organization took the first swing at the Republican over his business practices. The attack video called McFadden “just another rich guy who likes to fire people” and blamed his company for a Duluth paper mill’s decision to lay off workers. It’s a similar attack to the one the Obama campaign dropped on Mitt Romney early in the presidential race last year.

In response, McFadden said that unlike Bain Capital, his company is not a private equity firm and has no stake or operational control of the companies it advises. “It’s the same old attack, broad brush, and it’s wrong,” McFadden said. “We’re not job destroyers, we’re job creators.”

McFadden entered the race on Wednesday, after deciding that waiting any longer would put him at too much of a disadvantage against Franken. He said he is still building a campaign team and plans to continue reaching out to leaders around the state.

As a political neophyte, there is no tangible evidence of what kind of candidate McFadden will turn out to be. Republicans are hoping for the best.

“There is very much a curiosity about him and a willingness to learn more,” GOP consultant Gregg Peppin said. “At least among the people I’ve talked to, there’s a feeling that, ‘Hey, this guy may be the real deal here.’ But people just don’t know a lot about him.”

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