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Tina Smith quickly rising to top of Senate speculation

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith says that Target is committed to continue its program of giving to local charities. With her during a 2015 news conference is Gov. Mark Dayton. Don Davis / Forum News Service1 / 4
A smiling Gov. Mark Dayton watches new Minnesota Lt. Gov. Tina Smith speaking in 2015 right after she was sworn into office. Don Davis / Forum News Service2 / 4
Tim Pawlenty talks to a 2011 Ottumwa, Iowa, campaign stop. He was running for president; in 2017, there is talk abot him running for the U.S. Senate. Don Davis / Forum News Service3 / 4
Tina Smith listens as Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announces Feb. 4, 2014, that she will be his running mate in the election that year. Don Davis / Forum News Service4 / 4
  1. PAUL — It took only minutes after the first sexual misconduct allegation was waged against Al Franken for speculation to begin about who would replace him in the U.S. Senate.

That was back on Nov. 16, and the top prospect for Gov. Mark Dayton to replace Franken was Lt. Gov. Tina Smith. Other names were added in the next three weeks, but Smith's name continues to rise to the top as the governor says he has not yet decided.

"Events have unfolded quickly; thus, I have not yet decided on my appointment to fill this upcoming vacancy," Dayton said in a statement released Thursday, Dec. 7, minutes after Franken announced he would resign. "I expect to make and announce my decision in the next couple of days."

He said he would have no further comment until he names a senator.

Smith also commented on Franken's decision, but gave no hint whether she is interested.

"Now, it is on all of us to come together and make the progress necessary to live up to the values we believe in," Smith said. "Gov. Dayton and I remain committed to ensuring that Minnesota is a place where everyone has the opportunity to realize their full potential."

Whether Franken's pick is Smith or someone else, Dayton widely is expected to pick a woman. Franken hinted at that during his resignation speech.

"Minnesotans deserve a senator who can focus with all her energy on addressing the challenges they face every day," Franken said.

Democrat Dayton will appoint a Franken replacement to serve until the November 2018 election, when someone will be elected to fill out the final two years of Franken's term.

In next year's election, one possibility is that former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty could run for the same seat he planned to seek 15 years ago.

Pawlenty, a one-time presidential candidate, has been making the rounds of Minnesota organizations, giving frequent speeches this fall.

When Pawlenty was Minnesota House majority leader, he was mapping out a 2002 U.S.Senate campaign. That came to a screeching halt when the George W. Bush White House got involved. Vice President Dick Cheney called Pawlenty and asked him to step aside and let then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman be the GOP candidate.

Pawlenty did that and was elected governor in 2002, the same year Coleman was elected to the Senate days after then-Sen. Paul Wellstone died in an airplane crash.

Coleman lost to Franken in the 2008 election after a months-long recount.

On Wednesday, Coleman ran into a reporter in Washington and refused to count himself out of the 2018 Senate race, but on Thursday wrote on his Facebook page that he will not be a candidate.

With Franken's seat on the November 2018 ballot, voters will have more candidate decisions to make than they have in decades.

It will be an unusual ballot, with both Minnesota U.S. Senate seats on the ballot. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is being challenged by Republican state Rep. Jim Newberger of Becker; other Republicans may announce later. Newberger said on Thursday that he will continue his campaign against Klobuchar, not switching to the Franken seat.

Little-known Republican William Chamberlin of St. Cloud said he will switch from running for governor to seek Franken's job. State Sen. Karin Housley, R-St. Marys Point, told Minnesota Public Radio she is thinking about running for the newly open U.S. Senate seat. So is state Sen. Melisa Franzen, D-Edina.

Most Minnesota members of the U.S. House have been mentioned as potential candidates, along with Attorney General Lori Swanson, who was considering a governor run. Another name often mentioned is two-time congressional candidate Stewart Mills.

Every Minnesotan's 2018 ballot also will have races for governor, attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state. Dayton has said he is not running again, so that office has attracted lots of attention from candidates in both major parties.

Also, all state House members are up for election in 2018, with a variety of local races thrown in. If Dayton names Smith U.S. senator, that could affect the state Senate.

If Smith leaves the lieutenant governor job, the state Constitution makes Senate President Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, her replacement. That could make the second Senate opening, although there is some dispute whether Fischbach would be required to leave her Senate seat.

If Fishbach would quit the Senate, things could get interesting.

Sen. Dan Schoen, D-St. Paul Park, is resigning over sexual misconduct allegations, with an election to replace him set for Feb. 12. If a Democrat is elected to replace him, and Fischbach has moved on to be lieutenant governor, it would leave the state Senate in a 33-33 tie between Republicans and Democrats.

Carla Bigham, the only declared Democrat for Schoen's seat, has a successful background in the southeastern Twin Cities district, being elected to the state House and then the Washington County Board. However, at least two well known Republicans also are running.

Dayton could play into the scenario by delaying a Fischbach replacement election as long as possible so if Bigham wins it would give his Democratic Party more say in Senate actions with a 33-33 tie.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.