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The Risky Business of Senate Appointments

New Jersey Gov.-elect Jon Corzine's (D) pending appointment of Rep. Bob Menendez (D) to serve the remaining year of his U.S. Senate term got The Fix thinking about how appointed senators have fared when trying to seek a full six-year term.

Recent history shows it's a mixed bag.  Since 1986, 15 individuals have been appointed to the Senate. Of the 12 who sought full terms, half were defeated -- a surprisingly large number given the typical incumbent reelection rate in Congress over the past two decades. That percentage has increased of late as three of the four senators appointed since 1999 -- Sens. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.), and Lisa Murkowski (R-Ak.) -- won full terms after being appointed to the Senate.

Why is the success rate for appointed senators not better?  Charlie Cook, a political analyst (and The Fix's former boss), offered a few theories to explain the somewhat low success rate. "Elected senators have already been elected once," said Cook. "They have passed at least one test with the voters and an appointed senator hasn't."  Cook also suggested that the appointment process may be seen by voters as a "backroom deal." An appointed senator often is "a politician that has been picked by another politician," he said.

The most recent appointed senator to be defeated was Jean Carnahan (D) in Missouri. Carnahan, the wife of former Gov. Mel Carnahan (D), was appointed by the acting governor to serve in the Senate following a wild series of events that began with Mel Carnahan's death in a plane crash just weeks before the 2000 election in which he was challenging Sen. John Ashcroft (R).

It was too late to remove Mel Carnahan's name from the ballot, but Democratic operatives secured a commitment from Jean to accept an appointment if her husband managed to win the race. He did, so she was appointed.  Republicans recruited former Rep. Jim Talent, who had narrowly lost the 2000 gubernatorial race, to challenge Carnahan in 2002. Despite being outspent by $4 million, Talent won 50 percent to 49 percent in a campaign where he made his political experience the main issue.

Even when an appointed senators do win their first election after being appointed, it's not a guarantee of a long career. In May 1991 Harris Wofford (D) was appointed to fill the seat of Pennsylvania Sen. John Heinz (R), who had been killed in a plane crash.  Wofford won the right to serve the remainder of Heinz's term in a November 1991 special election against former Gov. Dick Thornburgh (R).  But when the Wofford had to stand for a full six-year term of his own in 1994, he was narrowly defeated by Sen. Rick Santorum (R).

Back to New Jersey.  Menendez isn't expected to have an easy race next year.  He could still face a Democratic primary challenge, and then there's his likely GOP opponent -- state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., son of the still-popular former Garden State governor.

By Chris Cillizza  |  December 8, 2005; 11:44 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Political scientists have analyzed Senate elections to try to put a finger on the poor track record of appointed senators. In my own work my co-author, Jonathan Koppell, and I argue that the experience of having previously run a successful Senate campaign is key, although we also note that appointed senators tend to face much stronger opponents than elected freshmen. The most current version of our paper is posted at

Jennifer Steen
Assistant Professor of Political Science
Boston College

Posted by: Jennifer Steen | December 12, 2005 10:45 AM | Report abuse

How exactly does Sen. Menendez--from NEW JERSEY--help anyone in Florida (a state that already has a Hispanic senator)?

No Michael, there is no correlation between ideology and election vs. appointment. New Jersey elected a liberal Democrat to that Senate seat in 2000. Then it elected the same liberal Democrat last month as its new Governor--who they knew would have the power to appoint a new senator. Given that NJ sent a liberal Dem to fill that Senate seat last time it had a chance, and a liberal Dem to Trenton to appoint his replacement, why would they resent the seat being filled with a relatively liberal Democrat?

This track record of appointed senators is part of why the prospect of Lieberman vacating his seat (as he planned to if Gore were elected in 2000) doesn't scare me. Some appointed Senators (Zell Miller, Dean Barkley) never bother running for election in their own right. Others were running already (Linc Chafee in 2000, Dianne Feinstein against appointed Sen. John Seymour in 1992) or were caught up in unusual and bizarre circumstances (Jean Carnahan). I think when you look at these situations case by case, they make a lot more sense. It might even be fun to morbidly speculate about this--Pete Domenici is known to be suffering mental illness--who would Richardson appoint to replace him? This isn't as strange as you might think; with a 50-50 Senate in 2001 there was all kinds of speculation and lobbying about who the Democratic Gov. of SC would appoint if Strom Thurmond died before his 2002 retirement. How long do we think Robert Byrd will hold on? Or the irascible Ted Stevens?

I think for a really interesting story, Chris should do a post on North Dakota's Senate seats in 1992.

Posted by: Sandwich Repairman | December 9, 2005 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Isn't it often true that appointed Senators may be farther left (or right) of the state-wide political consensus, or just the wrong party, and so are defeated?

What I'd be more curious about is the reelection rate of appointed Senators from the same party as the Senator whom they are replacing.

Posted by: Michael Rubenstein | December 8, 2005 5:34 PM | Report abuse

Re: post by Jay Lassiter

That's how the process works. I might have preferred someone else, but we do get another Hispanic in the Senate and that is important as we try to gain the support from the growing number of Hispanics in this country. Also, Sen. Menendez may help us in Florida. Just don't let him campaign in the Midwest agricultural states, lol!

Posted by: Jason | December 8, 2005 1:37 PM | Report abuse

As a Jersey boy, a progressive and a Corzine fan, this appointment, on priniciple still has a very unsavory feel to it. i totally agree with Cook's above suggestion that this has a real "backroom deal" kinda feel.

my personal preference was Nia Gill, but i like Menendez okay. I'm not disappointed that he is my new senator, rather with how be *became* my new senator.

Posted by: jay lassiter | December 8, 2005 1:26 PM | Report abuse

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