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Colorado’s Salazar To Head Interior, Creating Another Vacancy for Democrats

Democrats have not had the best of luck with their senatorial vacancies this year. Caroline Kennedy’s potential ascension to New York’s seat is triggering a flurry of controversy in the blogosphere. We don’t need to remind you what’s going on in Illinois. Ted Kaufman, appointed to fill Joe Biden’s shoes in Delaware, has been less controversial, although we criticized the pick for being too inside baseball.

And now the Democrats have another vacancy to fill – this time in Colorado, where Senator Ken Salazar, who was up for re-election in 2010, has apparently been selected to become Barack Obama’s Secretary of the Interior.

But this one has the potential to turn out a little bit better for the Democrats. With Colorado having turned bluer, Salazar’s moderation is no longer such a prize to the Dems, especially given that his approval ratings are no better than average. Basically, the Democrats ought to be able to wind up with either (i) someone just as electable as Salazar, but more liberal, or (ii) someone no more liberal than Salazar, but electorally untouchable. And just who might that someone be?

The Denver Post lists seven potential replacements for Governor Bill Ritter to pick from, and it’s a fairly strong group of candidates.

Rep. John Salazar – Brother of Ken Salazar and third-term Congressman. Moderate Democrat who aligns himself with the Blue Dog caucus — probably more moderate than his brother, and would not be a certain vote for the Democrats, especially on pocketbook issues. Has overperformed in his district, winning re-election easily in an R+4 district, and for obvious reasons should hold most of Ken Salazar’s electoral support. Basically, he would represent a sacrifice of ideology for electability.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper. Extremely popular in Denver. Has an interesting and salable background, with credentials ranging from geology to business development. Generally seems to be liberal, particularly on environmental issues, although he bought himself some credibility with moderates by opposing Denver’s marijuana decriminalization initiative (which passed anyway). Arguably the most upside of anyone on this list; however, there isn’t that much history of mayors of large cities transitioning into the Senate, as the two positions require fairly different skill sets.

Rep. Diana DeGette – Quite progressive Congresswoman who just won re-election to her 7th term. Entrenched/intimidating enough so as to no longer elicit serious Republican challengers in her Denver district. Is she too liberal to win statewide? Hard to say in Colorado, which tends to be more idiosyncratic and libertarianish than classically moderate. One downside is that her fundraising has not been terrific, although that’s not uncommon for someone who isn’t facing a serious challenger.

State House Speaker Andrew Romanoff — Term limited, and so is departing the state legislature. Young and has a reputation for ambition; one gets the feeling that he’ll run for Congress someday if he doesn’t get the Senate seat. State legislative leaders tend to have skills that transfer pretty well to the US Senate and have a fairly good electoral track record. Ritter is undoubtedly used to working with him. Conservatives will try and paint him as something of a tax-and-spend liberal based on his positioning on past state budget disputes.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter – Mainline-to-liberal Democrat who was just re-elected decisively to his sophomore term in purple CO-7. Has a reputation for strong constituent services. A fairly safe, compromise pick.

Former U.S. Attorney Tom Strickland. The Democratic nominee for Senate in both 1996 and 2002; he twice lost to Wayne Allard, by about five points each time out. Politics are a little hard to discern, although appears to tend more toward the moderate side.

Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet. Was on Obama’s short list to be Secretary of Education. That’s pretty much all that I know about him.

Final Thoughts: If he’s interested in the position – and who knows if he is – then Hickenlooper’s combination of resume, electability, and most likely being a reliable Democratic vote would seem to be something of a dominant strategy.

Strickland and Bennet are relatively untested electorally (actually, Strickland has been tested and twice failed that test). They would seem to be the most unorthodox choices.

That leaves the four legislators –- Salazar, Romanoff, Perlmutter, DeGette –- who probably run in that order from moderate to liberal, with a big gap between Salazar and the other three. Picking Salazar, when the Democrats have any number of well credentialed alternatives, would represent an awfully cautious choice on Ritter’s behalf; it’s also one that he’ll be under a lot of pressure to make.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.