Ten days after the poll, and Saturday Night Live star's Senate fight still too close to call

This article is more than 12 years old
Echoes of Florida 2000 as Minnesota result delayed until at least mid-December
Democratic senate candidate Al Franken
Al Franken shaking hands with supporters on election night. Republicans dredged up some of his more outrageous sketches and writings during the campaign. Photograph: Jim Mone/AP
Al Franken shaking hands with supporters on election night. Republicans dredged up some of his more outrageous sketches and writings during the campaign. Photograph: Jim Mone/AP
in New York
Fri 14 Nov 2008 19.01 EST

Though 2008 undoubtedly belongs to Barack Obama, it may also be remembered as the year of Saturday Night Live. It's not just that Tina Fey's impersonations of Sarah Palin will go down in history as the definitive entanglement of satire into the political process. It's also that a comedian best known for his work on Saturday Night Live has become embroiled in an epic battle that is still playing itself out, 10 days after the election, in the midwest state of Minnesota.

Al Franken has done a Palin in reverse. While she found herself satirised on a late-night TV stage, and put herself at the mercy of its millions of viewers, he took his track record as one of America's best-known liberal satirists on to the political stage - putting himself at the mercy of Minnesota voters.

Franken was one of the original writers on Saturday Night Live when it started in 1975. His characters such as the self-help guru Stuart Smalley earned him a devoted following and three Emmy awards over 15 years on the show.

Over time he sharpened his political bite until he became known as a leading antagonist of the radical Republican right. He was remorseless in his attacks on such pillars of conservatism as Rush Limbaugh's talkshow and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News channel, which he excoriated in best-selling books and through his own show on the leftwing radio network Air America.

It was just a step from there to taking his political convictions to their conclusion: by standing for election himself. Almost two years ago, he uprooted his life in the media mecca of New York, returned to his home state of Minnesota and began running for the US Senate as a Democrat.

He knew the contest against the sitting Republican senator, Norm Coleman, would be tough, but he could not have known it would be as brutal as this. The November 4 vote was so close that Franken trails Coleman by just 206 votes, out of 2.9m ballots cast.

Minnesota has turned into an echo of Florida 2000, the presidential race in which George Bush took the state by 576 votes and with it the White House. Unlike Florida, though, this election has been scrupulously supervised, in a process that will certainly be fair but will not be quick. Nobody expects a final winner in Minnesota until mid-December at the earliest, and it could take much longer if disputed results go all the way to the supreme court.

The outcome will be significant for the Obama administration as it faces the challenge of imposing change on Congress. If he wins, Franken will become the 58th Democratic senator - just short of the 60 needed to give immunity from Republican filibusters.

The outcome will also speak volumes about how far middle America is prepared to accept an outsider into its ranks. After all, Franken is not exactly your typical career politician.

"He's a bit of a potty mouth," said Larry Jacobs, professor of politics at the University of Minnesota. "His satire is not the kind people in polite company want to talk about."

He said that while Minnesota is liberal in terms of economic policy and government, socially it is deeply conservative, reflected in high church attendance and a strong anti-abortion movement. That can be problematic for a humorist who begins his discourse on the Republican right, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, with the comment: "God chose me to write this book."

Early in the campaign the Republicans dredged up several of Franken's most outrageous sketches and writings. First, Coleman put out a press release quoting an old Franken saying that "Republican politicians are shameless dicks". Then rightwing bloggers latched on to writings in which Franken had imagined a rape scene, and an article for Playboy where he envisioned the future of pornography under the title Porn-O-Rama! The piece involved the author fantasising about lewd acts with sexbots, and was criticised for demeaning women. The heat from that disclosure was so intense that even senior members of the Minnesota Democratic party began to dissociate themselves from Franken.

At the height of the row Franken issued a mea culpa of sorts: "It kills me that things that I said and wrote sent a message to some of my friends in this state that they can't count on me. I'm sorry for that. Because that's not who I am." The joke is that since he took to the campaign trail, Franken has barely cracked a joke. His electioneering has been relentlessly serious, focused on the Bush legacy and the failing economy.

But the controversy evidently hurt him. Obama took Minnesota by 10 points - a comfortable margin compared with the prolonged agony that Franken is now enduring.

There is hope yet for the comedian. An automatic recount next week could nudge the figures in his direction, and even if he remains behind he will have the option of challenging aspects of the election through the courts.