By Cathleen Decker

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton announced Wednesday that his lieutenant governor, Tina Smith, will replace Al Franken after the Democratic senator formally resigns.

Under state law, Smith will hold Franken's seat until the 2018 election. The winner of that election will finish the remainder of Franken's term, which was to have ended in 2020.

"Tina Smith is a person of the highest integrity and ability," Dayton said in making the appointment. "There is no one I trust more to assume the responsibilities of this important office."

Franken announced last week that he would resign "in the coming weeks" after several women accused him of sexual misconduct, including forced kisses and groping. He has not set a specific departure date.

Before she was elected as lieutenant governor, Smith, 59, was Dayton's chief of staff. Before that, she served as chief of staff to then-Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak. Before her political career, she was a marketing and public relations executive who had senior positions at General Mills and Planned Parenthood.

Once sworn in, Smith will become part of a two-woman Senate team for Minnesota, whose senior senator is Democrat Amy Klobuchar.

When Smith's name initially circulated last week as a likely appointee, she was reported to be planning to serve through the 2018 election but not seek the seat for the remaining two years.

But on Tuesday night, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis reported that Smith in fact would run in 2018.

While the selection of a caretaker senator would have allowed voters a fresh choice in the 2018 primary, it also would deny Democrats a candidate who, in the general election, could point to achievements as an incumbent and begin building the relationships and donor list necessary to do well.

Franken, who squeaked into office in 2008 and was re-elected by a larger margin, would have been the clear favorite in his re-election race, at least until the allegations of sexual harassment hit.

But the absence of an incumbent could alter the calculus. In 2016, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in Minnesota by only 1.5 percentage points, suggesting that a strong Republican candidate could fare well.

"At this writing, the situation is very fluid and is likely to take weeks to sort itself out," said analyst Jennifer Duffy of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, who declared the race a "toss-up" for now.

(c)2017 Los Angeles Times