Al Franken's political fall came as fast as his rise to Senate stardom

Franken seemed to defy fate by winning a U.S. Senate seat – yet would reach political stardom anyway.
Author:
Publish date:
Image placeholder title

You could argue Al Franken was never "supposed" to be a U.S. senator.

His background was in showbiz, a comedy writer who positioned himself as politically-adjacent; wading in the stream that flowed from the D.C. headwaters, but never venturing up to the source.

His first dive into political office, a run for U.S. Senate, produced a victory with an asterisk.

Franken didn't even win the 2008 race, at least not initially. A 215-vote loss to incumbent Republican Sen. Norm Coleman triggered an automatic recount. Only after 62 days of ballot challenging and tallying – plus the inclusion of 953 absentee ballots mistakenly discounted on the first pass – was Franken able to come out ahead.

A 215-vote deficit transformed into a 312-vote advantage. And Franken the funnyman became the junior senator from Minnesota.

"It could have easily gone the other way," Franken acknowledged even during his resignation speech.

The recount was, in many ways, the final inflection point in Franken's campaign. He had name recognition but wasn't taken seriously as a candidate, and fought to be considered a legitimate option.

He often found himself defending questionable actions from his past – the Lesley Stahl SNL writers room rape joke, the Playboy "Porn-O-Rama" article, the "Stu the Jew" statue joke.

But he continued on. He apologized, explained they were jokes made during a different part of his life.

And he won.

His first legislative amendment proposal as a senator – to bar the Pentagon from hiring contractors that require workers to sign a clause saying they won't sue if they're raped – caught The Daily Show's attention

His political crescendo

Over the next six years, Franken generally kept quiet. 

He was described as recently as 2014 as "dull" and workmanlike, with few big legislative waves to ride following his first term.

He slowly began to find his niche as a vocal consumer rights watchdog, speaking up on issues of data privacy, unfair arbitration clauses and mega media mergers

His rise to true political stardom wouldn't come until 2017 however, after President Donald Trump entered the Oval Office. It was in cabinet nominee hearings Franken was able to pair his knack for snappy, succinct messaging with his dogged obsession with lies big or small.

Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos had the "most embarrassing hearing" Franken said he'd ever attended. And he picked apart Jeff Sessions' explanations about his involvement in Civil Rights cases and Russian connections.

The Equifax CEO and Facebook's lawyer would face the same kind of scrutiny.

The blunt questioning made for great soundbites, and the Franken 2020 presidential buzz reached vuvuzela levels. (He denied interest, however.)

Within weeks Franken grew from quiet curiosity to Democratic darling, with pundits and fans suggesting he might be the path forward for liberals in 2020; a candidate with some starpower and media savvy who could thrive in the current political climate.

His rise toward the top was fast.

His plummet was faster.

Since Leeann Tweeden's story was published on Nov. 16, the accusations have continued to drip. A hand grasping a woman's buttocks. A palm conspicuously placed on a woman's breast. A squeeze. A wet kiss.

It was under the weight of those women's stories (some of which he denied) that he announced his plans to resign from the U.S. Senate.

It took 20 days for Franken to go from beacon of Democratic hope to political and cultural pariah; a leper, an undesirable, pressured to leave even by his closest allies.

When Franken leaves office, he'll step away from a position that a decade ago – based on his background, his questionable jokes, the first round of vote counting – it looked like he never had a chance of holding anyway.

Next Up

Related