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In October 2002 comedian, author, actor and political activist Al Franken, who was in the middle of writing his most recent book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them it distraught to hear his long time friend Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota has died in a plane crash. Wellstone's wife and one of his daughters along with seven others died in the plane crash. Wellstone was involved in a hotly contested senate race against Republican Norm Coleman, he died 11 days before the election.
After discussing it with his family, Franken comes forward as a potential replacement candidate. Former Vice-President Walter Mondale, who had considered running for the seat, decides to endorse Franken for the nomination. Franken is granted the nomination but refuses to begin campaigning until after the memorial service for those who died in the crash.
The 20,000-capacity memorial service for Wellstone and the other victims of the crash was held in Williams Arena at the University of Minnesota and was broadcast live on national TV. Many high profile politicians attended the memorial, including former President Bill Clinton, Senator Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Senator Ted Kennedy, Senator Trent Lott, and Governor Tommy Thompson. Rick Kahn, the volunteer campaign treasurer and a close friend of the late senator, began urging that the crowd should win the election for Wellstone and that Republicans should stop their opposition to the Senate seat.
Governor Jesse Ventura—who had the option to pick a replacement senator to serve out the remainder of Wellstone's term through January 2003—criticized the event for its tone and declared that he would solicit résumés for the senatorial position from everyone except Democrats. Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who had previously criticized Wellstone, decried the memorial as "appalling" and a "giant setup."
Franken took a bold step forward and went on tv publicly denouncing people like Limbaugh who he insisted were twisting what really happened to fool the public.
"20,000 people showed up to mourn Paul Wellstone and the others who had died. Rush Limbaugh insists 'They were phonies brought in by the democrats'. That's what Limbaugh thinks of Wellstone's legacy, that the people, including you citizens from Minnesota who came to mourn, were flown in by people like me. Then he insists 20,000 people booed any Republican who stood to speak. Now Rush is simply at war with reality, anyone who attended or watched the service on C-Span know that's a lie. Don't let people like Limbaugh, or anyone one else fool you, and don't let them hijack Paul Wellstone's soul just to win a senate race. You have to decide for yourselves in this election."
With little campaigning by both Franken and Coleman, surrogates from both parties came to Minnesota to campaign for their candidates.
In the end, Franken won the senate race 50.1% to 48%. Despite outcry over the Wellstone ceremony controviesy, Franken's response rung true with some voters, and it was enough to win a squeaker of a victory. Franken's win gave the Democrats 50 seats in the Senate. The Republicans also held 50 seats, with Vice-President Dick Cheney serving as the time breaking vote giving them a slight majority.
Franken, upon being sworn in, was immediately targeted by the right due to history as a left wing author. Right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh started calling Senator Franken "The Freak Show" that "will get laughed out of public office."
Franken's book "Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them" had been finished before he took office, and some worried about the potentional backlash. The novel becomes a best seller despite cries from the right.
Franken became popular due to his speaking style and his direct and honest approach. In 2004 there is speculation he may run for the presidency, but Franken quickly denies the rumours and endorses Massachusetts Senator John Kerry for the Democratic nomination.