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Power to appoint and disappoint

For a governor, filling a Senate seat is a plum, and potential pitfall, and not just in Illinois.

December 22, 2008|Robin Abcarian

"I'm going to keep this Senate option for me a real possibility, you know, and therefore I can drive a hard bargain. And if I don't get what I want . . . then I'll just take the Senate seat myself."

-- Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich, as quoted in his federal corruption complaint.

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Rod R. Blagojevich may have gotten carried away by the heady opportunity to appoint a United States senator. But he is not the only chief executive of a state to face that exquisite quandary this season. With the elevation of Illinois' junior senator (Barack Obama) and Delaware's senior senator (Joe Biden) to the executive branch, plus the Cabinet appointments of senators from New York (Hillary Rodham Clinton) and Colorado (Ken Salazar), four states will be getting new senators untouched by the grinding process of raising millions of dollars and seeking votes.

Plum jobs in one of the world's most exclusive clubs will be awarded by fiat. Is it any surprise aspiring senators are lining up to make their cases?

Not since nine senators died in office during President Eisenhower's first term have so many unexpected vacancies occurred. State laws determine how the seats are to be filled -- some require special elections; most allow a governor to make an interim appointment. The empowered governors are buffeted by political pressure and strategic considerations about their own futures. Only Blagojevich has been accused of trying to cash in on the deal.

And he's not the first to consider appointing himself, said Donald A. Ritchie, the Senate's associate historian.

But, Ritchie said, "it's the kiss of death when governors do this." Ten of them have found the perfect Senate appointment staring back at them in the mirror, he said, and nine of those went down in defeat when they ran to retain the office.

In New York -- where Gov. David Paterson knows exactly how it feels to wake up one day and unexpectedly have a job people would kill for -- the would-be solons lobbying him for Clinton's soon-to-be-open seat include scions of intermingled political dynasties (Caroline Kennedy and her former cousin-in-law Andrew Cuomo) and nasally former TV nannies (Fran Drescher, who declined an interview request but told Larry King recently: "I just feel like I would represent the New York people really well").

Name recognition and the ability to quickly raise large amounts of money are factors that weigh heavily in the calculations of some governors, since each newly minted senator will have to run for his or her seat in 2010. But self-interest and/or nepotism can hover over these appointments like the Ghosts of Elections Future.

In Delaware, for instance, the state's outgoing Democratic governor raised some eyebrows when she appointed Biden's longtime chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, to Biden's Senate seat. Kaufman, 69, is widely understood to be a place holder for Biden's son Beau. Beau Biden, 39, is Delaware's attorney general, but is unavailable to be senator because he is serving a tour in Iraq and is not expected to return until late 2009.

"This is all Biden's attempt to foment a dynasty," said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Kaufman has no learning curve, so Delaware doesn't get hurt in that regard. This all makes sense . . . except there were some Democrats in Delaware who were not happy that [outgoing] Lt. Gov. John Carney was not selected. He's in his early 50s, is looking for a job and is talking about challenging Beau Biden in a primary."

Duffy added, "There's always the possibility that Carney gets a job in the [Obama] administration, which would take care of that problem, wouldn't it?"

The place holder/dynasty-building strategy has worked before: In 1960, when John F. Kennedy was elected president from the Senate, his little brother Teddy was constitutionally unfit to replace him (Edward M. Kennedy was 28; a senator must be at least 30). So JFK engineered the appointment of his college roommate, Ben Smith, who stepped aside in 1962 to allow Ted Kennedy, by then 30, to run for the seat -- which he won then, and has won ever since.

In 2002, Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska, leaving his seat to be filled. After publicizing a list of 25 potential replacements and interviewing them, he named his daughter Lisa to the job.

Lisa Murkowski, who was an Alaska state legislator at the time, went on to win her own six-year term in 2004, but Duffy recalled a snide bumper sticker from that cycle: "Yo, Lisa! Who's yer daddy?"

Frank Murkowski's act had a number of major aftershocks, the least of which was 24 really irritated candidates who'd been spurned. More important, the Alaska Legislature passed a law requiring future Senate vacancies to be filled by special election. And voters were sufficiently angered by the blatant nepotism and other missteps that Murkowski was savaged in the 2006 primary, losing by 32 percentage points to a certain former Republican mayor of Wasilla.

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