In Senate race, focus shifts to Pawlenty
GOP set to back further appeals
By Manu Raju and Josh Kraushaar
Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter's shocking decision last week to become a Democrat has upped the ante in the never-ending Senate race in Minnesota.
Republicans now have a stronger-than-ever incentive to hold out until every appeal is exhausted. And Democrats have an equally strong incentive to blunt those appeals — including by rendering moot a key decision that may lie ahead for Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
With Norm Coleman now standing between Democrats and their 60-seat supermajority, the GOP is prepared to back the Republican's appeal to the federal level if even a shred of doubt emerges in the case now before the Minnesota Supreme Court.
"This makes it pretty darn important," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, of the race following Specter's switch. "I expect they will pursue the appeals until they are exhausted, whenever that may be. ... would assume if they were unsuccessful in the Minnesota Supreme Court, there may very well be an appeal to the United States Supreme Court."
A key issue for Democrats is whether to seat Al Franken in the Senate if his victory is upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court — even if Pawlenty, a Republican with an increasingly high national political profile, withholds his signature from the election certificate. In the wake of the recent flap over seating Sen. Roland Burris, D-Ill., Democrats have set a precedent that to be seated in the Senate, a candidate needs a signed certificate from the sitting governor and secretary of state.
Pawlenty's role is central to the dispute, and the question of whether Pawlenty must sign the election certificate after the ruling by the state's highest court is unclear. Coleman's lawyers say there is a legal gray area as to whether Pawlenty should sign the certificate if there is a federal appeal pending, and the governor says that he'll follow the direction of the courts.
Pawlenty, however, may have no choice in the matter. As part of the fight before the state's high court, where oral arguments are scheduled for June 1, Franken's team is likely to ask for a ruling on whether Pawlenty is required to sign an election certificate even if the loser appeals the case to federal court, according to Sen. Robert Menendez, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
"If the court does that, there would be no opportunity for circumvention by Pawlenty," Menendez said Thursday.
"Pawlenty's signature is very, very important," said Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democratic chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, which oversees election disputes. "We expect it to happen after the Supreme Court of Minnesota rules. ... If he refuses to sign, we'll have to cross that bridge when we come to it."
Democrats won't say whether they'll try to overcome a possible GOP filibuster by seating Franken if Pawlenty refuses to sign the certificate. But with Specter standing as the 59th Democrat, Democrats need just one GOP defection to break a filibuster in order to win Franken's seating.
On Thursday, several Republicans said they expected any further appeals by Coleman to be fully supported by their conference, though some acknowledged that the party consensus could be fractured if Coleman continues to lose soundly before the courts.
"If they affirm a lower court's ruling, then yeah, I think it probably gets more difficult in each step of the process to continue to elevate it," said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., a member of GOP leadership. He later added that there would be "broad support for whatever decision Norm and his camp make."
Pawlenty's handling of the matter could endear him to the GOP base, but it might also infuriate some Minnesota voters if he seeks re-election as governor next year.
Last week, the White House-allied Americans United for Change launched an ad, which is airing in the Twin Cities and Rochester cable markets, calling on Pawlenty to do his "legal duty" and sign an election certificate once the state's highest court rules.
Republicans dismiss those tactics and say Coleman is fighting to ensure that about 4,900 absentee ballots are properly counted, as he argued Thursday in a new brief filed with the state Supreme Court.
National Republicans are eager to see Coleman continue fighting as long as he can — even to the federal level, a process that could take many months. But they are wary of being viewed as directing the fight out of Washington, saying that the decision remains up to Coleman, who can expect the full party's financial and political backing should he appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — or wage a new lawsuit in federal district court.
"the thrill of the hunt"