ST. PAUL, Minn. - Al Franken went yesterday from the ranks of former Saturday Night Live comedians to the U.S. Senate, outlasting Republican Norm Coleman in an eight-month-long recount battle and courtroom saga.
Franken's victory gives Democrats control of 60 Senate seats - the number they need to overcome Republican filibusters.
When Franken is seated, which could be as early as next week, his party will have a majority not reached on either side of the aisle in three decades. It was last reached by the Democrats in the late 1970s when their party held the White House under Jimmy Carter.
"When you win an election this close, you know not one bit of effort went to waste," Franken said. "The way I see it, I'm not going to Washington to be the 60th Democratic senator, I'm going to Washington to be the second senator from Minnesota."
Coleman conceded the election hours after the state Supreme Court ruled that the 58-year-old Franken - who moved into politics with books poking fun at conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh - should be certified the winner.
In doing so, Coleman pulled the plug on a bitter election fight that was ultimately decided by 312 votes out of 2.9 million cast.
"Franni and I are so thrilled that we can finally celebrate this victory," Franken told reporters outside his downtown Minneapolis town house, where he was accompanied by his wife. He added: "I can't wait to get started."
Coleman could have carried his fight into federal court. That prospect created months of intrigue over whether Minnesota's Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty would certify the election for Franken if Coleman was still pursing appeals. That became moot with his concession, and Pawlenty signed the certificate in the evening.
"The Supreme Court has made its decision and I will abide by the results," Coleman said outside his St. Paul home. Appearing relaxed, he said he had congratulated Franken and was at peace with the decision.
"Sure I wanted to win," said Coleman, who brushed aside a question about whether he would run for governor in 2010.
After Coleman ended election night ahead by several hundred votes, he had called on Franken to concede.
The Democrat refused. The tiny margin triggered an automatic recount that then put him ahead by 225 votes. Coleman challenged that result in January, but a review by a three-judge panel expanded Franken's lead to 312 votes by the time it ended in April.
Coleman appealed to the state's high court later that month, arguing that election officials across Minnesota had been inconsistent with rules on absentee ballots, unfairly robbing thousands of people of their votes.
But the state's high court rejected that reasoning, voting 5-0 that there was no reason to apply a more lenient standard in judging absentees, as Coleman wanted, than the law required.
"I think what you had was 12 judges look at this through the canvassing process, through the recount and throughout the trial, and all agreeing unanimously that I won more votes than anybody else," Franken said.
Franken has come a long way from the goofy 1980s SNL skits where he mocked politicians and pranced around in little more than a Speedo. His career evolved in the 1990s with books harpooning Limbaugh, and he later gained a liberal following as a radio show host on the "Air America" network.
Minnesota has elevated an entertainer to political office before, electing former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura governor in 1998.
Franken and Coleman combined to spend $50 million in pursuit of the Senate seat - more than double what was spent in 2002, when Coleman won the seat, which was held by Democrat Paul Wellstone, who died in a plane crash.
For Democrats to exercise their newfound strength with Franken in office, they will need to be as united in support of a bill as Republicans are in opposition, regardless of regional differences, ideology, or political self-interest.
An early test could come next month, when health care legislation reaches the Senate floor. Democrats have been seeking agreement on a bipartisan plan with a handful of Republicans. But if those talks falter, they may end up needing all 60 party votes to advance one of the Obama administration's top priorities.
Minnesota's other senator, Democrat Amy Klobuchar, said Franken told her yesterday he's "ready to get started immediately."
"This victory was hard earned for Al Franken and his family," she said. "Franni Franken had a suitcase packed, ready to go to Washington at a moment's notice, like you do when you're waiting to have a baby. She had a toothbrush, clothes, all of that, ready to go."