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Appointed Senators Rarely Win Re-Election

In November, two Republicans, Roger Wicker of Mississippi and John Barrasso of Wyoming, appeared on the ballot for the first time as candidates for U.S. Senate, after having been appointed to the chamber midway through the 110th Congress as replacements for Trent Lott and Craig Thomas, respectively. Both won their special elections easily, with Wicker defeating an underwhelming opponent in Ronnie Musgrove, and Barrasso hardly facing any serious challenge at all.

This, however, is rather unusual. In fact, senators appointed to fill midterm vacancies have fared rather poorly when it came time for the voters to give them a verdict. Over the past 25 Congresses, there have been, by my count, 49 senators who selected by gubernatorial appointment in midterm (this excludes cases where a senator-elect acceded to office a few days early to gain seniority on his colleagues, a once-common courtesy that is becoming less so.) Of those 49 senators, only 19 — fewer than 40 percent — won their subsequent special election. Meanwhile:

* 13 of the 49 (27%) ran for office, but were defeated in the general election;
* 7 of the 49 (14%) ran for office, but were defeated in the primary;
* 10 of the 49 (20%) chose not to seek a permanent term (including one who was prohibited by state law from doing so).

These numbers are far below the usual benchmarks for incumbent senators. Since 1990, about 81% of incumbent senators have sought re-election, and among those have sought it, 88% have won it. By contrast, among the 80% of gubernatorial appointees since 1956 who chose to seek re-election, only 49% survived both the primary and the general election.

A list of the 49 gubernatorial appointees since 1956 follows below:

[DISCLAIMER] We don’t have this information centralized in any way, so there may be some errors and omissions.

The gubernatorial appointment process, certainly, has identified some distinguished senators, including Walter Mondale, Robert Stafford, and George Mitchell. But other appointments have been more questionable. Upon winning the Presidency, JFK got his college roommate, Benjamin Smith, appointed to the Senate, keeping the seat warm for his younger brother Ted. In four cases, the spouse of a deceased senator was appointed; none won re-election (although Jean Carnahan deserves partial credit as she was the de facto candidate for Mel Carnahan, who won posthumously). This does not count Edwin Edwards, the infamous former governor of Louisana, who appointed his wife to fill Allen Ellender’s seat in the 92nd Congress. In three cases, a senator’s son or daughter was appointed; all three won re-election, although all had previous electoral experience. In five cases, a governor appointed himself; all five of these greedy governors ran for re-election, and all five lost. In 11 of 49 cases (22%), the incoming senator was of a different party than the one he replaced.

By contrast, appointees who had significant recent experience as legislators performed fairly well. In 7 of the 49 cases, the appointee was a sitting member of the House of Representatives; 6 of the 7 won re-election. Seven others were sitting members of their State Legislatures at the time of their appointment; 5 of those 7 won re-election.

The process, in other words, works just fine when it isn’t abused — but too often it is abused, with the governor appointing himself, his spouse, or his friends, or a spouse or friend of the vacating senator. That such a low percentage of gubernatorial appointees have succeed in winning re-election suggests that such appointments are often counter to the public will, and quite possibly the public good. Rod Blagojevich, certainly, has abused his powers in unprecedented ways, but he is also taking advantage of a flawed system.

Fixing this process could occur in one of two ways. The more sweeping is a Constitutional Amendment, which would revise the Seventeenth Amendment to require special elections in the case of vacancies from the Senate. Alternatively, states can move to solve the problem themselves by passing a “fast” special elections law, as states like Oregon, Wisconsin and Massachusetts now have (and Illinois soon will). Other states have evolved other checks and balances; Utah and Wyoming require that the candidate be selected from among a list prepared by the state party apparatus, while Alaska, Hawaii and Arizona require appointees to be from the same party as the departing senator. Arkansas provides for gubernatorial appointments, but does not allow the appointee to run for re-election.

Whatever the details, more states ought to consider reforms like these. A Senate seat is a [bleeping] valuable thing — too valuable to allow a governor to bypass the voters.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.