Accusations of sexual misconduct throw Franken into a political minefield
WASHINGTON — On Thursday morning, Nov. 16, radio personality Leeann Tweeden became the latest woman to allege inappropriate sexual conduct by a powerful man, describing a 2006 incident in which she says that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., kissed and groped her without her consent.
Franken's office quickly released a statement playing down the accusation, which occurred before he was in office, but the timing is politically fraught for the senator. The Alabama Senate race has been roiled by accusations of sexual misconduct involving underage girls against the Republican nominee; accusations against other prominent celebrities have inspired a broad backlash — particularly on the political left. Even allegations made against Bill Clinton during his presidency have been resurrected, thanks to the cultural moment.
It's fair to ask, then, what the political repercussions might be for Franken.
Could there be an effort to expel him? After allegations emerged involving Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican, members of his own party levied an unusual threat: Were he to win election, he would face an immediate effort to expel him from the Senate.
The Senate can expel any member that it wants for whatever reason it wishes — but it doesn't do so often or lightly. The last senator to face an expulsion effort was John Ensign of Nevada, who resigned in 2011 before the process was completed. The last senator to actually be expelled was Jesse Bright from Indiana, ousted in 1862 for sympathizing with the Confederacy.
This seems like an unlikely turn of events, but Republicans will probably be eager to position Franken's behavior against Moore's. If they were willing to kick out Moore for inappropriate behavior — behavior that, as of this writing, relies largely on verbal allegations — then why should they not seek the same punishment for a Democrat? That effort would go through the Senate Ethics Committee. On Thursday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell reportedly requested that the committee begin a probe.
Could Franken resign?
A more likely outcome would be that Franken decides to resign.
As of this writing, this still seems fairly unlikely; Franken's initial statement seems to indicate that he hopes to weather the storm. But just as there will be pressure on him from Republicans, there will also be members of his own party who'd prefer not to have to defend him against his allegations while excoriating Moore — and President Donald Trump, who also faces multiple accusations of sexual misconduct. Does Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer want to have to rail against Moore and Trump knowing full well that the immediate response will be, "Then why didn't you do anything about Franken?"
After all, it's not like Democrats would lose the seat.
Should Franken resign, the process to replace him goes like this:
• Since it's more than six weeks before the primary for that Senate seat, the governor of the state will appoint someone to fill the vacancy.
• Franken's not up for reelection until 2020, so there would be an election in 2018 to find someone to fill out the rest of his term.
• In 2020, the winner of that election would stand for reelection, if he or she chose to.
The governor of Minnesota is Mark Dayton, who served in the Senate from 2001 to 2007. He's a staunch Democrat and would presumably appoint a Democrat to fill Franken's seat.
The outcome of a 2018 special election isn't entirely certain, but, unlike neighboring states, Democrats in Minnesota weathered the Trump surge last year to hand its electoral votes to Hillary Clinton by a narrow margin. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Franken's peer, is also on the ballot; her seat is rated by the Cook Political Report as "solid Democratic." An off-year election might normally be disadvantageous to the Democrats, but 2018 is shaping up to be a strong year for the party nationally because of the deep unpopularity of the president.
Three of Franken's colleagues, Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Tim Kaine, D-Va., have expressed initial support for a Senate investigation. In a new statement, Franken himself supported that idea.
Clearly, the Democrats would rather not have to take the risk of putting Franken's seat up for grabs, no matter how safe it might seem. But it's not like Schumer would be losing a seat in a state with a Republican governor who voted for Trump in 2016. Franken could step down and allow his colleagues to save face.
As of this writing, this entire situation is about three hours old. Franken might well weather these allegations, just as Moore has shown no inclination to step away from his race to join the Senate. But there will be a lot of pressure from both Democrats and Republicans to use Franken as a counterweight to the Moore and Trump allegations, and given the relative safety for Democrats of booting him from office, that might mean he's more at risk than one might otherwise expect.
Pushing for Franken's ouster might even be politically popular among Democrats, considering the extent to which progressive voters have called for accountability on similar allegations against others.