Former comedian and current Senate candidate Al Franken continued his race towards the Democratic nomination in Minnesota by raising almost $2 million in the second quarter of 2007, out-raising incumbent Republican Senator Norm Coleman.
"We've shown that when people come together, they can be even more powerful than the special interests and corporate [political action committees] backing Norm Coleman," Franken spokesman Andy Barr said in a statement.
"And we've shown that Al is a candidate who can bring people together around the progressive values we share."
According to Franken's campaign finance report for April through May, filed with the Federal Election Commission on Sunday, the former "Saturday Night Live" star raised $1.9 million — more than Coleman's $1.6 million and Democratic rival Mike Ciresi's $750,000.
In the second quarter, about 28,000 donors contributed to Franken's campaign, with 95 percent of them giving $100 or less, with an average of $65 per donation. About 20 percent of Franken's first quarter supporters again contributed to the campaign in the second quarter, with donations coming from every county in Minnesota and every state in the nation.
Despite the surprising setback, Coleman's campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said in a statement that his camp was satisfied with their results.
"We're very pleased with the statewide organization we're building, and a big part of that is our continued fundraising success," said Sheehan. "People believe in Sen. Coleman's positive vision for our state, and they're supporting his continued efforts to get things done for Minnesota."
But Franken's impressive tally stole the headlines.
"His fundraising ability has been a surprise," said University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs. "That is one of his most important advantages — to be out-fundraising the incumbent. That's very rare. Particularly, if you've never held elected office, that's unheard of."
Franken has benefited from the help of some of his Hollywood friends. Actors Meg Ryan and Ed Norton made donations to his campaign during the second quarter, while a March fundraiser at the home of "Seinfeld" creator Larry David and his wife, Laurie — a producer of the Al Gore documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" — raised more than $200,000 in the year's first quarter. The event included a guest appearance by Franken's friend and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks, and a donation from legendary film star Paul Newman.
However, Franken's celebrity connections may not be entirely a good thing.
"I don't see voters siding with Franken because famous Hollywood voters are supporting him," said Jacobs. "In a state like Minnesota, a strategy like that would backfire. This kind of populist state doesn't go for that."
Franken's campaign is only the latest to be significantly influenced by celebrity donations.
In 2003, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a former actor, used his celebrity status to catapult him to political power.
However, there are other instances where celebrity help has actually hurt.
In 2004, George Clooney's father Nick Clooney lost his bid for a congressional seat in Kentucky. The younger Clooney helped raise $600,000 for his father's campaign, but after Rep. Geoff Davis won the House seat, the actor vowed to keep quiet about politics because of a backlash against Hollywood involvement in politics.
Jacobs said that Minnesotans can't relate to Hollywood stars.
"Hollywood is seen, at least in the middle part of the state, as different," he said. "They live differently, have different social values. This is a socially conservative state, and that's not Hollywood.
"We don't have Paris Hilton here in Minnesota. I think the support of liberal Hollywood actors and actresses is a mixed bag. The money is great, but there is a stigma with it."
Despite his Hollywood help, Franken still trails Coleman in cash on hand, with slightly under $2 million compared to the incumbent's $3.8 million. And, although Franken's celebrity status might be helpful for fundraising, his jokester past has its drawbacks.
"I think, at this point, you have to say that Franken is still the dark horse," said Jacobs. "His track record as a comedian has created a written record and a video record that he's going to be forced to defend, and that puts him on the defensive.
"Even though he's running against a vulnerable incumbent, the campaign already is setting up as a bit of a referendum on the challenger," Jacobs added. "Is Franken up for the job? And that's because of his track record, his written record that he's being challenged about."
Even before Franken officially declared his candidacy in February, the National Republican Senatorial Committee released a collection of Franken quotes, including a 2003 comment in TIME magazine where Franken denied any temptation to run for office, saying, "If I took one vote away from a serious candidate, it would be a sin."
Ron Carey, chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party, issued a statement expressing confidence that the state "will reject Franken's divisive, scorched Earth attacks," declaring that "Al Franken fundamentally lacks the leadership qualities Minnesotans are looking for."
Despite only starting his fundraising in May, Ciresi, a wealthy trial lawyer known for winning a large settlement against the tobacco industry, also remains a contender.
"He is clearly in it," said Jacobs. "He's got enormous assets, and most people expect him to use them. He's a very serious candidate.
"But, in terms of sweat, Franken is leading the pack. He's working the state. He's running a grass roots campaign, and I didn't see that coming."