The morning after the Nov. 4 election, Norm Coleman stood before TV cameras, declared victory in Minnesota’s U.S. Senate election and said that if he were opponent Al Franken he’d "step aside."
Two months later, Coleman finds himself down by nearly the same margin he appeared to hold over Franken that day. His lawyers said Coleman — who later expressed regret at that post-election remark — is not ready to step aside, vowing a lawsuit that’s likely to keep the race in limbo for several more months.
Minnesota’s Canvassing Board on Monday certified that Democrat Franken won 225 more votes than Republican Coleman, out of almost 3 million cast. Franken took his own opportunity to declare himself the victor.
"I am proud to stand before you as the next senator from Minnesota," the former "Saturday Night Live" personality told reporters in brief remarks outside his downtown Minneapolis condominium.
But Franken’s ability to claim the seat immediately is in doubt. Minnesota law prohibits final certification of a winner until a legal challenge is resolved, and Senate Republicans have indicated they would filibuster if necessary to block Franken from participating when new senators are sworn in Tuesday.
Franken took no questions during his brief appearance Monday, and his campaign aides refused to reveal if he would be in Washington on Tuesday to try to participate in the swearing-in.
Coleman, whose term in office ended on Saturday, was in Washington when the Canvassing Board declared him the loser of the recount. His campaign said he would speak publicly in Minnesota on Tuesday.
The Canvassing Board’s certification of the recount results started a seven-day clock for Coleman to file a lawsuit. His attorney, Tony Trimble, said Monday afternoon that the challenge would be filed within 24 hours.
"This process isn’t at an end," Trimble said. "It is now just at the beginning."
When the smoke cleared after the election, Coleman appeared to hold a 215-vote lead. But Franken made up the deficit over seven tortuous weeks of ballot-sifting, in part by prevailing on more challenges that both campaigns brought to thousands of ballots.
Franken also did better than Coleman when election officials opened and counted more than 900 absentee ballots that had erroneously been disqualified on Election Day.
Coleman’s lawyers have argued that some ballots were mishandled and others were wrongly excluded from the recount, giving Franken an unfair advantage. Such claims are likely to be a major feature of any lawsuit.
Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat, was careful to note that the board was simply signing off on the numbers found by the recount: Franken, with 1,212,431 votes, and Coleman, with 1,212,206 votes.
"We’re not doing anything today that declares winners or losers or anything to that effect," Ritchie said.
All five members of the canvassing board — Ritchie, plus two state Supreme Court justices and two Ramsey County judges — voted to accept the recount results. And the four judges, including two appointees of Republican governors, praised Ritchie and his staff as being fair and diligent.
A lawsuit would extend the fight over the seat for months. Any court case would open doors closed to the campaigns during the administrative recount. They would be able to access voter rolls, inspect machines and get testimony from election workers.
The case would fall to a three-judge panel picked by Chief Justice Eric Magnuson of the Supreme Court. Magnuson served on the Canvassing Board, but declined to say Monday if he would remove himself from the selection process as a result. Magnuson was an appointee of Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Costs of the election lawsuit fall to the campaigns. But there is a provision in state law that exposes the government to costs if prior results are reversed due to an irregularity in election procedure.