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The 17th Amendment resurfaces as a campaign issue

By Felicia Sonmez

At a recent town hall meeting, Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller (R) became the latest candidate to suggest that he'd be in favor of repealing the 17th Amendment, which calls for the direct election of senators.

Following a few days of "no comment" on the remarks -- as well as charges by rivals Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) and Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams (D) that he is an extremist who wants to "repeal the 20th Century" -- Miller appears to have distanced himself from the comment, saying in a statement that changing the Constitution is not a "practical solution" to the problems in Washington.

"If it weren't for Senators like Lisa Murkowski, voters wouldn't be talking about repealing the 17th amendment," said Miller. "Voters are frustrated by the bailouts, cap & trade and the direction of our country. I share those frustrations and that is why I'm running for the U.S. Senate. Amending the constitution is not the practical solution to changing the problems in DC, changing the people who are there is."

The Miller brouhaha is just one of several races where the 17th Amendment has cropped up as an issue -- a rarity in just about any election cycle.

Let's start with a very brief history of the 17th Amendment as political football over the last decade (or so) in campaigns.

In April 2004, a different Miller (then-Sen. Zell Miller (D-Ga.) introduced legislation to repeal the amendment; not surprisingly, he didn't get very far.

Four months later, the issue reared its head in then-Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama's (D) Senate campaign; Obama's Republican rival, Alan Keyes, said that 17th Amendment repeal was a "critical" issue in his campaign.

In 2006, Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson (R) proposed what he termed a "soft repeal" of the amendment allowing state legislators to select Senate candidates. Sens. Bob Bennett (R) and Orrin Hatch (R) came out strongly against the proposal.

Since then, the issue had largely disappeared -- until this cycle.

A sampling of the campaigns in which its become an issue this year:

* In the Colorado Senate race, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in August ran a TV ad against Weld County District Attorney Ken Buck (R) hitting him for previously supporting repeal of the amendment. Buck has since explained that his prior statements on the amendment were a "mistake."

* Dentist Paul Gosar (R), who is running against Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D) in Arizona's 1st district, said that there were "unintended consequences" that took place when the 17th Amendment was created. The Democratic Congressional Committee quickly launched a TV ad that slams Gosar for the remarks.

* In Ohio's 15th district, Republican Steve Stivers, who is vying to unseat Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy (D), has taken flak for saying in response to a local 912 Project survey that he would support repealing the 17th Amendment. (Stivers later told the Columbus Dispatch he "answered that question wrong.")

* Colorado state Rep. Scott Tipton (R), who is running against Rep. John Salazar (D), also backtracked after answering on a tea party survey that the 17th Amendment was not a "good thing for America."

* Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) has gone up with a TV ad hitting his opponent, Steve Southerland, on the 17th Amendment. (Southerland has since said that he would not repeal it.)

* In Idaho, 17th Amendment repeal became a focal point both at the state GOP convention, in the 1st district Republican primary and in the gubernatorial race. (Gov. Butch Otter (R), who is not facing a competitive race, was in hot water last month for stating that he wants to do away with the amendment. His spokesperson later said that Otter "has always disagreed with the 17th Amendment but from a practical stance, repealing it isn't going to happen.")

As most candidates who have at floated the idea of repealing the 17th Amendment have acknowledged, the issue is not likely to be at the top of most members of Congress' lists after November. The fact that it has lit up so many campaigns, however, is one of the hallmarks of this cycle's more unusual races, as well as a testament to voters' dissatisfaction with the current state of government and the growing power of the tea party movement.

By Felicia Sonmez  | October 11, 2010; 3:00 PM ET
Categories:  Governors, House, Senate  
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