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.
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