ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Minnesota's next senator, Tina Smith, could face a clear path to next year's special election, with support pouring in from nearly every corner of the state's Democratic party and a top potential primary challenger announcing he won't run against her.
Within minutes of Smith's appointment Wednesday to replace Sen. Al Franken, her selection was lauded by Democratic allies in labor, the state party's African-American caucus and every Democratic member of Minnesota's congressional delegation.
That included Rep. Keith Ellison, the deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who remains a powerful political force even after losing his bid for the party's top job. He spent the long weekend weighing a potential run before ruling himself out and endorsing Smith in next year's election to keep the seat.
While it's unclear who Republicans may put forward to run for Franken's seat next year — the field of potential candidates includes former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a fundraising juggernaut — Democrats hope uniting around Smith gives them an advantage in a surprise Senate race.
"I just decided that nobody's personal ambition is as important as us retaining that seat," Ellison said in an interview shortly after Smith's appointment. "She's going to get a running start by being appointed by the governor, and all of us are going to gather around her."
Franken's resignation last week amid a growing cloud of sexual misconduct allegations raised the stakes 2018 for top Washington Democrats. It added an unexpectedly open Senate seat to a map that has them defending two dozen blue states with few opportunities to defeat Republicans in a quest to retake the Senate majority.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer pressured Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to ensure his pick to replace Franken would also run for the seat next year, according to a Democratic official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to speak freely about private discussions ahead of an announcement.
But in Minnesota, some Democrats worried giving a candidate a head start on a campaign would upset liberal voters and encourage a primary challenge — a costly hurdle given the 10-month sprint to Election Day. After her appointment and impending 2018 bid was announced on Wednesday, Smith and Dayton sought to reassure voters.
"I think anybody who knows the voters of Minnesota knows they can't be told what to do," Smith said.
A challenge from Ellison could have dragged the party into expensive endorsement and primary battles. He said he hopes his decision wards off other Democrats from challenging Smith, calling on his supporters to back her as well.
Few Democratic candidates would have the resources necessary to mount a Senate campaign that will likely need to raise $10 million or more in the next 10 months. Democrats who have launched bids for governor, such as Rep. Tim Walz, were perhaps best positioned to swap in for a Senate bid.
Walz's campaign spokesman Nick Coe said Thursday Walz is backing Smith's 2018 campaign. Two other top gubernatorial candidates, Rep. Erin Murphy and St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, both applauded Smith's appointment on Wednesday.
That outpouring of support leaves little room for a serious challenger, Minnesota's Democratic party chairman Ken Martin said.
"If this was a year and a half out, I think you'd probably see a few more people who would be looking at the race. Given how close we are, time really isn't on our side," Martin said. "Most people understand the need to coalesce behind a candidate early."
Critically, Smith is well-connected to heavy-hitting Democratic donors in Minnesota, having helped run Dayton's multi-million dollar 2010 election and joined his re-election ticket in 2014. She also ran previous campaigns, like Vice President Walter Mondale's short-lived 2002 Senate race and his son's failed gubernatorial bid four years earlier.
State Sen. Melisa Franzen said she's still considering a bid, either in 2018 or 2020, when Franken's current six-year term expires. A moderate Democrat from a swing district, she said she aims to decide by the end of the year.
"I think Minnesotans like to elect their leaders rather than have something ... decided for them," Franzen said. "I am debating whether I want to go through that process, especially because (Smith) does have a lot of support."
A clearing of the Democratic field could reinforce the criticism from Republicans that Smith was hand-picked for a 2018 bid. It's unclear who the eventual Democratic nominee will face in November, though former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other Republicans have expressed interest.
"I think this is one of the core differences between our parties: We encourage and want as many people to throw their names in and run," Minnesota Republican Party Chairwoman Jennifer Carnahan said. "We're not in the business of trying to dictate who the choice should be."