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Associated Press, Published June 01 2009

Costs spiral in race for Minnesota Senate seat

ST. PAUL – Senate foes Al Franken and Norm Coleman stepped off Minnesota’s campaign trail last November after sinking $37 million into commercials, consultants and statewide tours.

Lawyers’ meters are about the only things running now.

Seven months after the Coleman-Franken race was supposed to end, the rivals seldom hold public events and have shaved their payrolls to about a half-dozen employees each. But both still search eagerly for cash – hauling in at least $13 million between them since Election Day – to feed a legal battle that reaches a critical point today.

That’s when the Minnesota Supreme Court, the last guaranteed stop for the election contest, hears arguments over the nation’s longest Senate vacancy in 34 years.

Coleman, the former Republican senator who trails by 312 votes, wants justices to instruct a trial court to open more previously rejected absentee ballots. Franken, the potential 60th Senate vote for Democrats, hopes the court sweeps aside the appeal and demands he get the election certificate required to take office.

There’s no telling how fast Minnesota’s highest court will act. And if Coleman loses, he could petition the U.S. Supreme Court, which isn’t certain to take the case.

What is certain is that the pivotal seat will come at a handsome price: The combined $50 million Coleman and Franken have spent so far chasing victory is more than double what it cost candidates in 2002 when Coleman captured what had been a Democratic seat.

The total encompasses official figures reported through March to federal campaign regulators as well as preliminary estimates of more recent activity, which the campaigns supplied to The Associated Press. It doesn’t include what political parties and outside groups devoted separately to the race and recount.

“When you’ve invested this much time, energy and money, it’s hard to call it to an end yourself,” said Thomas E. Mann, a government scholar at the Brookings Institution.

“You need someone external to do it.”

Neither Franken nor Coleman granted interview requests ahead of the Supreme Court showdown.

Most of the gaze is on Coleman, who has been behind since December. Franken trailed prior to the statewide recount, but he pulled ahead late in the process and padded his lead during a trial triggered by Coleman’s lawsuit.

While Democrats and their allies on the left are pressuring Coleman to concede, he’s received steady backing from Republicans to press on.

Steve Lombardo, a Republican strategist and pollster in Washington, said there is little doubt Coleman will try to take his case forward if the next ruling goes against him.

“This is a worthwhile endeavor, and while the chances are less than 50-50 probably, there’s no reason not to see it all the way to the finish,” Lombardo said, adding, “This has become a firewall.”

Mann suspects Coleman will find money tougher to come by if he loses this round and contributors sense he is merely stalling an inevitable outcome.

“There comes a point where just delaying won’t be enough for private donors,” Mann said.

A Franken win would give Democrats and the two Senate independents who align with them the power to end GOP filibusters. It takes 60 votes to cut off debate. With a comfortable House majority, Democrats would find it easier to push through President Barack Obama’s agenda.

Coleman leaned on that possibility in his latest fundraising letter. “The stakes have never been this high,” he wrote. “Our ability to overturn this flawed recount process – and preserve checks and balances against the near total control of our government by Obama and the Democrats – rests in your hands.”

In a recent financial appeal from Franken, the former “Saturday Night Live” comedian was almost apologetic for going back to his donor base again. “But,” he said, “it’s expensive to keep defending our win in court. And we need your continued support so that our legal team can continue its work.”

Expense reports analyzed by the AP show law firms in Minnesota and Washington working for both sides had raked in nearly $6 million by early spring, a tally sure to rise when candidates submit their next quarterly statements to regulators in July.

Both candidates are benefiting from party help. The two state parties covered $2 million of those legal fees, according to an AP examination of their filings. They chipped in lesser amounts for paychecks, mileage costs and meal expenses for people dispatched to watch over the statewide recount.

In March, the Federal Election Commission said national party committees could tap donors for five-figure checks toward recount and election contest funds. The National Republican Senatorial Committee recently pledged $750,000 to help defray Coleman’s past and future legal bills. The Democratic counterpart has begun raising money to assist Franken.

Legal costs are behind the latest clash between the campaigns.

The trial court ruled Franken could recoup money it spent fighting Coleman’s lawsuit, excluding attorneys fees. His lawyers sought $160,000 for expenses, right down to the $860 projector rental so lawyers could magnify documents for effect during the seven-week trial.

Coleman’s lawyers objected to costs they consider unreasonable and asked that the court hold off on any award until appeals are done. It could take another court hearing to sort out.

Expenses tied to the overtime election have hit taxpayers, too. The Secretary of State’s office spent $173,000 on the automatic recount, mostly to reimburse county offices for the hand review of 2.9 million ballots.

The campaigns swamped city and county election offices with public records requests before and during the trial. But most government offices wound up charging for copies, which cost the campaigns tens of thousands of dollars apiece.

At a time when the state’s courts are cutting hours and taking other steps to cope with a budget squeeze, they are out $80,000 from the election lawsuit.

A special three-judge panel that presided over the lengthy trial declined to make the campaigns foot the bill, said state courts spokesman John Kostorous.

Those costs include lodging, meals, mileage, parking and overtime for court clerks and staff from the time the case was filed in January until a verdict came down in April. Retired judges were brought in to cover the regular dockets of the three district court judges who relocated to St. Paul for the case.

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