MINNEAPOLIS (Reuters) - Democrat Al Franken, a satirist turned politician, was declared the winner of a Senate seat in Minnesota on Tuesday, clearing the way for President Barack Obama’s party to secure a critical 60-seat majority in the Senate.
Ending one of the longest Senate races ever, the Minnesota Supreme Court unanimously rejected each of Republican Norm Coleman’s five legal arguments that an earlier recount of the November 4 vote had been unfair. Coleman quickly conceded.
Franken will become the 58th Senate Democrat, the most the party has had since 1981. Two independents routinely vote with the Democrats, giving the party the 60 votes needed to clear Republican procedural hurdles known as filibusters.
However, the party has traditionally had trouble ensuring all its members vote the same way. They will also need to rely on Arlen Specter, a former Republican from Pennsylvania who switched parties in April who has said he will vote his own way and not necessarily along party lines.
“A lot is being made of me being the 60th member of the Democratic caucus. That’s not how I see it,” Franken said. “I‘m going to Washington to be the second senator from Minnesota.”
The Minnesota court, in its 32-page ruling, said Coleman had failed to show there was anything wrong with the standards used to reject absentee ballots that he wanted counted.
“I thought we had a better case, but the court has spoken,” Coleman said outside his St. Paul, Minnesota, home. “I’ll abide by the results. There will be no further litigation.”
Republican Governor Tim Pawlenty said in a statement he would sign the election certificate immediately, allowing Franken, a former writer and actor for the popular Saturday Night Live television show, to join the Senate, likely next week.
After creating such characters as sad-sack self-help guru Stuart Smalley on Saturday Night Live, Franken agitated against conservatives on his nationally syndicated radio show and in a series of books that included “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
As a campaigner, however, he maintained serious demeanor, and said he will focus on issues such as health care reform, education and energy policy.
“I really will be catching up,” he acknowledged. “I’ll hit the ground, if not running, trotting.”
“I‘m just glad it’s over. Enough taxpayer money has been spent,” said Joseph Grevious, 30, a neighbor of Franken’s who joined the crowd outside the senator-elect’s condominium.
Both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid extended a hand to the 58-year-old Franken, who had never run for public office and grew up in Minnesota.
“The Senate looks forward to welcoming Senator-elect Franken as soon as possible,” Reid said.
Minnesota’s vote count was the subject of recounts and legal battles.
Coleman, seeking a second term, held a razor-thin 206-vote lead in initial results after the November 4 election.
But the close vote triggered an automatic recount of the 2.4 million ballots cast for the two men, and Franken edged to a 225-vote lead. That was challenged by Coleman and a judicial panel agreed to add only a few hundred previously rejected absentee ballots. That tally expanded Franken’s lead to 312.
Pawlenty, considered a possible presidential contender in 2012, previously announced he would not run for governor again next year, which clears an avenue for Coleman to run for the post.
“That’s a decision for another day,” Coleman said.
The last time either party had a filibuster-proof 60 senators was 1979 when Democrats held 61 and Democratic Jimmy Carter was president. Democrats also control the House of Representatives, 256 to 178 with one vacancy.
There is no guarantee Senate Democrats would all fall in line to pass Obama’s top initiatives, and the Democratic president knows it.
“I am under no illusions that suddenly I‘m going to have a rubber-stamp Senate,” Obama said in April after Specter switched parties.
The Franken-Coleman duel was the longest contested Senate election since a 1974 New Hampshire race, which was voided 10 months later due to voting irregularities, according to the Senate historian’s office.
Additional reporting by Tom Ferraro in Washington; Writing by Andrew Stern; Editing by Jackie Frank