Tempers are flaring in Minnesota, a state that has long prided itself on what its residents call 'Minnesota nice' (for an amusing portrayal of this style of behaviour, look no further than Fargo, perhaps the best film the Coen brothers have made to date). The pyrogen is the still unsettled Senate race between incumbent Norm Coleman and his Democratic challenger, Al Franken. As of today, Coleman is only 215 votes in the lead. Yesterday, Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com projected - with startlingly confident precision - that Franken would manage to push 27 votes into the lead by the end of the recount.
With the margins that small, the one thing we can be sure of is that the eventual victor - whoever he may be - will have a hard time convincing his opponents that he won fair and square. For a taster of what is to come, take a look at politico.com's latest article on the subject. It is an extremely biased piece of work entitled 'Sloppy Dems may spell Franken advantage' (the title alone cries out for the attention of an editor). It relies heavily on the opinions of a "veteran Minnesota election law attorney" named Robert Hentges, who has this to say:
“Democrats are [thought to be] more creative, free-spirited, so the idea is that they’re more likely to make a mistake that the optical scan won’t pick up. But when they recount the hard copy, those votes will be counted for Franken. If you talk to Republicans, they say it will be Franken’s advantage, because Democrats are stupid and will screw up ballots more often.”
Since the Politico reporter seems to take Hentges' suggestions at face value, it's a fair bet that this meme will have legs. Of course, many Minnesota Democrats are poorer than the average citizen, and so often have to deal with longer lines to vote, and less reliable equipment when they do. But that was also true in Florida eight years ago, and didn't stop Republicans from labelling Al Gore's supporters as undereducated African-Americans and senile old fools. The suggestion was, of course, that these voters didn't really deserve their votes in the first place. Expect to hear more of that if Franken manages a victory.
Update: It turns out that the headline of the Politico piece genuinely was in need of some editing. I e-mailed the author, Daniel Libit, with my concerns, and he agreed that the piece's title - which he didn't choose - was inappropriate. It has now changed to 'Franken hopes may turn on absentee issue', which is decidedly more neutral.
Senator Joe Lieberman has been a thorn in the Democrats' side for a long time, but relations have only worsened since Connecticut primary voters booted him off the party ticket in 2006. Lieberman reacted by separating himself from the party and running as an independent, despite his earlier promises not to do so. Having campaigned for him in the primaries, many of his Democratic colleagues switched their support to the official party nominee, much to Lieberman's chagrin. He won re-election anyway, and since then has repeatedly broken his campaign promise to be loyal to the Democrats, stumping for his old friend John McCain, smearing Barack Obama, and delivering the keynote address at the Republican convention.
It's no surprise, then, that the party base want revenge. There is already outrage at the gentle approach President-elect Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have taken thus far. However, they ought to remember the proverb about not cutting off one's nose to spite one's face. Kicking Lieberman out of the party might send a message that disloyalty will be punished, but other than that it would accomplish precious little. It would be far wiser for Democrats to send a forgiving and non-partisan message, and keep Lieberman on board for important Senate votes. There is currently a real prospect of their controlling a 60-seat majority in the Senate, which would let them stop Republican filibusters derailing their legislative goals. These are still goals that Lieberman shares, despite his alienation from the party. Here's hoping Democrats don't give him more reason to subvert these goals. Lieberman is the one who has been cutting off his nose to spite his face, and there is still a chance that he will come to see that.
If the Presidential race provides insufficient drama tonight, watch out for the results of the Senate races also taking place. There look likely to be some real nail-biters. Foremost among these is the match-up in Georgia between incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss and Democrat Jim Martin. The race looks so close that it may end up in a December runoff, prolonging the election season yet further. Another close race is in Minnesota, with comedian Al Franken challenging Republican Senator Norm Coleman. This should have been a solid Democratic gain this year, but Franken has proved to be a less than ideal candidate, with the race essentially tied in the polls.
The outcome of these races should interest us all, even if we are not Minnesotans or Georgians. The workings of the Senate mean that a minority of over 40 can effectively stall any legislation, so the Democrats are desperately hoping they can reach 60 seats. It looks unlikely at the moment, but if this is truly a landslide for Obama, he may have sufficiently long coat-tails to get his party there. Amid all the excitement and triumphalism that would surround an Obama victory, we should not forget that he may have a difficult time bringing about the change he has promised.
Update: The Democrats have managed to win Elizabeth Dole's seat in North Carolina, a pleasing result for them...