Let voters fill vacant Senate seats

When a member of the U.S. House of Representatives dies, retires or takes another job, a special election is held in the district. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin plans to introduce a constitutional amendment requiring special elections to fill vacant U.S. Senate seats as well:

“The controversies surrounding some of the recent gubernatorial appointments to vacant Senate seats make it painfully clear that such appointments are an anachronism that must end.  In 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution gave the citizens of this country the power to finally elect their senators.  They should have the same power in the case of unexpected mid term vacancies, so that the Senate is as responsive as possible to the will of the people.  I plan to introduce a constitutional amendment this week to require special elections when a Senate seat is vacant, as the Constitution mandates for the House, and as my own state of Wisconsin already requires by statute.  As the Chairman of the Constitution Subcommittee, I will hold a hearing on this important topic soon.”

Feingold explained the rationale for his “new effort to empower the people” in this Daily Kos diary.

Since the November election, four Democratic governors have appointed new U.S. senators. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is in particular disgrace for allegedly trying to profit personally from the appointment to fill Barack Obama’s seat. After a convoluted chain of events, Blagojevich was eventually able to get his choice, Roland Burris, seated in the U.S. Senate. (Jane Hamsher wrote the best piece I’ve seen on the farce: I want to play poker with Harry Reid.)

New York Governor David Paterson didn’t cover himself with glory either during the past two months. I agree with Chris Cillizza:

Is it possible that this process could have played out any more publicly or messily? It’s hard to imagine how. Paterson’s final pick — [Kirsten] Gillibrand — is entirely defensible but the way he handled everything that happened between when Clinton was nominated and today cloud that picture. Will Paterson ultimately be a winner for picking an Upstate woman to share the ticket with him in 2010? Maybe. But, today it’s hard to see him as anything other than a loser.

The other two Senate vacancies filled by governors stirred up less controversy nationwide, but are also problematic in some respects. Governor Ruth Ann Minner of Delaware replaced Joe Biden with picked a longtime Biden staffer who has no plans to run in 2010. I love competitive primaries, but in this case Minner was mainly trying to clear the path for Biden’s son Beau Biden, the attorney general of Delaware who could not be appointed to the Senate now because of a deployment in Iraq.

Colorado Governor Bill Ritter passed up various elected officials with extensive campaign experience and a clear position on the issues to appoint Michael Bennet, who had very little political experience and virtually no public record on any national issues. (Colorado pols were stunned by the choice.)

Discussing Feingold’s proposed amendment, John Deeth seems concerned mainly with the prospect of a governor appointing someone from the other political party to replace a retiring senator.

For me, the fact that all four Democratic governors appointed Democrats to the vacant U.S. Senate seats is immaterial.

I can’t tell you whether Burris, Gillibrand, Kaufman or Bennet will do a good job in the Senate for the next two years, but I can assure you that none of them would have earned the right to represent their states in a competitive Democratic primary. That alone is reason to support Feingold’s constitutional amendment.

The power of incumbency is immense and will create obstacles for other Democrats who may want to challenge Gillibrand or Bennet in 2010. (Burris may be out sooner than that if Blagojevich is removed from office, but whoever his successor appoints would have the same unjustified advantage in a potential 2010 primary in Illinois.)

Special elections can be held within a few months. Let voters decide who should represent them in the Senate.

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Roundup of recent Grassley news and speculation

John Deeth recently made the case for “a strong challenge to Chuck Grassley” in 2010:

We can’t have another let sleeping dogs lie race here. A weak candidate here breaks the straight ticket at the very top, and hurts everyone below. Every election cycle there’s one contest that comes out of nowhere, and we need to be in position for it. Sometimes that out of nowhere candidate doesn’t fit the conventional mold (like Dave Loebsack); the key is being able to make a strong, credible, well-funded case. Sure, it could fizzle, like, say, Jim Slattery did in Kansas this cycle. But it could sizzle, like Tom Carper knocking off Bill Roth in Delaware in `96. The thing is, we don’t know-Grassley hasn’t has a serious challenge since he was the challenger.

I also favor running a serious candidate against Grassley, largely because I think doing so would increase the odds of Grassley retiring.

The question is, who among Iowa Democrats has the stature, the desire and the fundraising ability to take on this uphill battle? (There are five or ten Slatterys for every Carper.)

Grassley dodged a bullet when Tom Vilsack, the strongest potential Democratic candidate for the 2010 U.S. Senate election, got a position in Barack Obama’s cabinet.

Please post your suggestions in this thread.

I should add that I agree with American007 that Grassley will probably run for one more term. But the very well-connected Marc Ambinder seems to expect Grassley to go.

With the Senate Republican caucus down to 41 members, and the GOP defending quite a few vulnerable Senate seats in 2010, it’s a good time for long-serving Republicans to call it a day. The odds are their party will remain in the minority for the rest of their careers.

Just this week two prominent Republicans have opted out of 2010 Senate races. Today Senator “Kit” Bond of Missouri said he will not seek a fifth term. On Tuesday former Florida Governor Jeb Bush said he won’t see that state’s open Senate seat.

Getting back to Grassley, he said yesterday that Attorney General nominee Eric Holder will not have a smooth confirmation hearing because

we need to know what the relationship is with Governor Blagojevich. And I don’t say that in denigrating in any way except Governor Blagojevich’s recent troubles raises questions with anybody that’s had a relationship with him.

As BarbinMD noted,

It seems that consistency isn’t a concern for Grassley, given that moments before he was insisting that Roland Burris should be immediately seated in the U.S. Senate.

The Des Moines Register has more on Grassley’s comments about Burris, who was appointed directly by the tainted Illinois governor.

Grassley may be less conservative than many other members of the Republican Senate caucus, but never let him try to claim he’s a moderate. His voting record shows otherwise, not to mention his willingness to throw a wrench in the confirmation of Holder, who is clearly qualified to run the Department of Justice.

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Cunningham gets seven years for CIETC-related crimes (updated)

Ramona Cunningham was sentenced to seven years in prison for her part in misappropriating $1.5 million in federal funds while she headed the Central Iowa Employment and Training Consortium (CIETC). Others involved in the fraud at CIETC will be sentenced later this month or next year, but presumably Cunningham will do the most time in prison, having been the central figure in the scandal.

The prison sentence seems fair; misusing funds meant for job training programs is a serious crime. I’m sure many people will say Cunningham should be punished more harshly, though. The hatred of her is out of proportion to the crimes at CIETC.

Speaking of crime and punishment, Glenn Greenwald wrote a good post contrasting the media’s exhaustive coverage of Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s alleged crimes with the near-total silence about the Senate Armed Services Committee’s recent finding:

The bipartisan Senate Armed Services Committee report issued on Thursday — which documents that “former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other senior U.S. officials share much of the blame for detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba” and “that Rumsfeld’s actions were ‘a direct cause of detainee abuse’ at Guantanamo and ‘influenced and contributed to the use of abusive techniques … in Afghanistan and Iraq’” — raises an obvious and glaring question:  how can it possibly be justified that the low-level Army personnel carrying out these policies at Abu Ghraib have been charged, convicted and imprisoned, while the high-level political officials and lawyers who directed and authorized these same policies remain free of any risk of prosecution?  

Great question.

UPDATE: CIETC’s former chief accountant Karen Tesdell got sentenced to two years on Tuesday for looking the other way as her colleagues misappropriated money.

Marc Hansen’s latest column reviews the arguments Cunningham’s attorney Bill Kutmus used during the sentencing hearing. He said his client wasn’t the ringleader and should not be punished more harshly than John Bargman (CIETC’s former chief operating officer, who will be sentenced next year). He also said Cunningham was a victim of sexism, and that U.S. prosecutors had treated her unfairly.

I agree that misogyny was driving a lot of the intense hatred of Cunningham. But I have some advice for her: next time you decide to commit a bunch of federal crimes, strike a plea bargain like Bargman did if you don’t want to do serious prison time.

Look at Mitchell Wade. He bribed a member of Congress with more than $1.8 million and just got sentenced to only 30 months in prison, because he cooperated with prosecutors.  

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New thread on vacancies to be filled in the Senate and cabinet

The big news of the day is that the FBI arrested Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on federal corruption charges. Apparently he has been under investigation for some time, and he was caught on tape talking about trying to get something of value in exchange for appointing someone to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat. Click the link for more details.

If the allegations are true, Blagojevich needs not just to resign, but to go to jail. Also, way to hand the Republicans another great talking point against “corrupt” Illinois Democrats and the Chicago machine. That is sure to be used against Obama and whoever succeeds him in the Senate.

The possibility that New York Governor David Paterson will appoint Caroline Kennedy to replace Hillary Clinton in the Senate has divided the blogosphere, with more and more heavyweights speaking out against the move. Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake explains why this would be a “truly terrible idea”:

Her leadership could have been really helpful when the rest of us were trying to keep the progressive lights on and getting the stuffing beaten out of us by a very well-financed right wing for the past eight years.  But when things were tough, she was nowhere to be found.

Now that the Democrats are in power, she’d like to come in at the top.  We have absolutely no idea if she’s qualified, or whether she can take the heat of being a Kennedy in public life.  She’s certainly shown no appetite for it in the past.  She’ll have a target on her back and if she can’t take it, if she crumbles, she will become a rallying point that the right will easily organize around.

The woman has never run for office in her life.  We have no idea how she’d fare on the campaign trail, or how well she could stand up to the electoral process.  She simply picks up the phone and lets it be known that she just might be up for having one of the highest offices in the land handed to her because — well, because why?  Because her uncle once held the seat?  Because she’s a Kennedy?  Because she took part as a child in the public’s romantic dreams of Camelot?  I’m not quite sure.

And the guy with the biggest megaphone, Markos, piles on:

I hate political dynasties. Hate them. But Jane is right, in this case, the idea is particularly egregious — Caroline has done nothing to help beat back the right-wing machine. But now, she’s supposed to be handed by fiat what others fight their whole lives to attain?

I would like to see Paterson appoint one of New York’s 26 Democratic members of Congress. It would benefit the state to have someone with legislative experience replace Hillary. Daily Kos diarist Laura Stein made a strong case for Representative Carolyn Maloney.

Moving on to the cabinet, on Sunday Obama named retired General Eric Shinseki to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Everyone seems to think this is a great idea. From the Boston Globe:

In the Bush administration, General Eric K. Shinseki committed the crime of truth-telling: He told the Senate in early 2003 that maintaining order in Iraq would take far more US troops than Donald Rumsfeld planned for. It cost him his job as Army chief of staff. That same virtue, honesty, should stand him in good stead now that President-elect Barack Obama has nominated him to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The choice is a stinging rebuke not just of Rumsfeld and President Bush for failing to take Shinseki’s advice on the Iraq war, but also of the administration’s weak effort to solve the medical, educational, emotional, and employment problems that veterans are having in returning to civilian life. Just as the Bush administration thought it could oust Saddam Hussein and create a peaceful, democratic Iraq with a bare-bones force, it has tried to skimp on veterans services.

Daily Kos user Homer J wrote this interesting reflection on an afternoon he spent with Shinseki.

Al Gore is going to Chicago today to meet with Obama, leading to speculation that he may be asked to head the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Energy. I think it’s more likely Obama is seeking Gore’s input on other possible choice. I’d be surprised if Gore would consider a cabinet position now. Some people have suggested Obama might create an environment/climate “czar” position, which could go to someone with stature like Gore.

Interior is emerging as a major battleground, with  more than 130 environmental groups signing a letter backing Congressman Raul Grijalva of Arizona for the position, even though he is rumored to have fallen off Obama’s short list.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are upset that Blue Dog Congressman Mike Thompson of California appears to be the leading candidate for Scretary of the Interior. The environmental blog Grist has some highlights of Thompson’s voting record:

In 2003, he voted for Bush’s controversial Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which enviros saw as a massive gift to the timber industry.

In 2004, he voted against an amendment to an Interior appropriations bill intended to protect wildlife and old growth trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest by stopping taxpayer-subsidized logging road construction. The measure passed by a vote of 222-205, and he was the only California Democrat to vote against it. He also opposed an amendment to ban the act of bear-baiting in national forests and Bureau of Land Management lands.

He was also one of only 30 Democrats in 2006 to vote against an amendment to the Forest Emergency Recovery and Research Act that would maintain areas of the national forests protected under the Roadless Rule. He also voted against another amendment that would have required the Forest Service to comply with environmental protection, endangered species, and historic preservation laws when conducting “salvage logging” operations in national forests. The amendment failed.

Anyone who supported Bush’s policies on “healthy forests” and road-building is by definition not “change we can believe in.” I sincerely hope Obama will do better than this. Another top-tier candidate for Interior is said to be Kevin Gover, who would be the first Native-American cabinet secretary if appointed.

Here’s a list of people rumored to be in the running for secretary of education.

Over the weekend, Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius took herself out of the running for any cabinet position, saying she needs to finish her term and deal with budget and economic challenges in Kansas. She had been mentioned for several possible cabinet positions. Some believe she withdrew her name to save face, having gotten the word that she was being passed over. It seems just as likely to me that she has decided to run for Senate in 2010. Scout Finch has more on that possibility.

UPDATE: Maine Senator Olympia Snowe wants Obama to elevate the head of the Small Business Administration to a cabinet-level position. I fully agree with Jonathan Singer that the best move for Obama here would be to elevate the SBA and appoint Snowe to head that cabinet department. She’s a moderate Republican, and it would free up a Senate seat in a blue state.

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Update on U.S. House and Senate races

Yesterday runoff elections were held in Louisiana’s second and fourth Congressional districts.

In the biggest Congressional upset of the year, Democratic incumbent “Dollar Bill” Jefferson lost to Republican Joseph Cao in LA-02. You may remember Jefferson as the guy who kept $90,000 in cash in his freezer and used the National Guard to visit his home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’m normally a yellow-dog Democrat, but Jefferson is one Democrat I’m happy to see go.

No need to worry about winning back this seat in 2010, as David from Swing State Project explains:

So LA-02 is D+28 (old PVI). There is no district that is as red as this one is blue – UT-03 tops out at R+26. This reminds me of IL-05 in 1994 (1990s PVI: D+11) – corrupt Dan Rostenkowski got beaten by the unknown Michael Flanagan, who got soundly thumped by Rod Blagojevich two years later.

Remember, there are only nine other Republicans in Congress representing House districts with any kind of Democratic lean, and the most Democratic of those districts is D+6.5. Assuming Louisiana Democrats come up with a credible candidate in 2010, LA-02 should be an easy pickup.

The result in LA-04 yesterday was more disappointing. Democrat Paul Carmouche appears to be just 350 votes (less than 0.5 percent) behind Republican John Fleming. Carmouche is not conceding yet, but I doubt there are enough outstanding provisional and absentee ballots to put him over the top here. On the other hand, keeping it this close represents a kind of moral victory for Democrats, since John McCain carried LA-04 by 19 points on November 4. A Democrat “should” not even be competitive in a district like this.

Within the past week Democratic candidates conceded in California’s fourth and forty-fourth districts, which were both unexpectedly close despite having strong Republican partisan voting index numbers.

Provisional ballots are still being counted in Ohio’s fifteenth district. It looks like Democrat Mary Jo Kilroy has a decent chance at beating Republican incumbent Steve Stivers, because the 26,000 provisional ballots are in her stronghold (see this post by brownsox for more details). Am I the only one who finds it suspicious that so many voters had to fill out provisional ballots? That’s almost 10 percent of all the voters in the district on November 4.

UPDATE: Kilroy has won OH-15 by about 2,000 votes. Her margin of victory is large enough not to trigger an automatic recount. Assuming the recount in LA-04 does not change last night’s result, the next Congress will have 257 Democrats and 178 Republicans. I’ll take it!

Moving to the Senate races, the Minnesota contest is sure to end up in the courts and perhaps resolved by the U.S. Senate. The state canvassing board has delayed its meeting to review thousands of challenged ballots until December 16, because one precinct that favored Al Franken appears to have lost about 130 ballots that were counted on election night. If the ballots are not found, he could lose several dozen votes, which could make the difference in this ridiculously close race. It’s still unclear whether absentee ballots that were rejected because of clerical errors will be counted in Minnesota.

Click here to find a bunch of recent (and more detailed) accounts of what’s going on in Minnesota. Whoever ends up getting seated in the Senate is going to be viewed as illegitimate by many on the other side. I still can’t believe more than 400,000 Minnesotans voted for independent candidate Dean Barkley.

The presidential election results created a few Senate vacancies. The governor of Delaware appointed Ted Kaufman, a former chief of staff to Joe Biden, to take Biden’s place. The consensus seems to be that Biden set this up to leave the path clear for his son, Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, to run in 2010 when there is a special election to determine who will serve out Joe Biden’s term (which ends in 2014). The younger Biden cannot serve in the Senate now because he has been deployed in Iraq.

In New York, Caroline Kennedy (the daughter of President John F. Kennedy) has become the surprise favorite to be appointed to take Hillary Clinton’s place. It strikes me as an odd choice in a state with many capable Democrats in the U.S. House. Nothing against Kennedy, who seems very smart and principled, but I think Governor David Paterson should pick someone with more relevant political experience for this job. More speculation on the New York Senate seat is here. As in Delaware, there will be a special election in 2010 to determine who will serve out Clinton’s term (which ends in 2012).

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich still has not announced his choice to replace Barack Obama in the Senate. Many people still expect Tammy Duckworth to have the inside track, especially since Obama is going with retired General Eric Shinseki for Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs. On the other hand, Fox News says Illinois Senate President Emil Jones will be picked to serve out Obama’s term (which ends in 2010). Jones is considered a “safe” choice because he is both black and an “elder statesman” placeholder. If he is the pick, expect a very competitive Democratic Senate primary in Illinois in 2010.

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The Race to Replace Obama II

(Thanks to American007 for putting this together. - promoted by desmoinesdem)

Well, with the election of President Barack Obama (I will never get tired of typing that) looking more and more like a certainty, it's time once again to get elbow deep in the muck that is Illinois politics. In this diary, I'll be taking an updated look at possible appointees to Obama's Senate seat.

A quick reminder of the rules at play here. The Constitution states that a congress person must be at least 30, a citizen for at least 9 years prior to entering the Senate, and must live in the state they represent. Beyond that, there are no rules. Governor Rod Blagojevich can appoint whoever he likes to the position, without having to have that pick voted on or vetted by anyone.

So here are my odds on who the pick will be:

2-1: Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-IL)

Often, when a governor must appoint someone to fill a vacant seat, their first reaction is to fill the seat with someone as close to the genuine article as possible. In that regard, Jackson Jr. is the man for the job. He's an almost universally well-liked Representative from the south side of Chicago. It helps that he's one of Obama's closest allies, having put out fires started by his father several times. Plus, appointing Jackson will help keep the “upstate senator/downstate senator” balance with the downstater Dick Durbin.

In addition, Gov. Blago has to be feeling the pressure to appoint an African-American to the seat, lest the 111th Congress have no African-American senators.

Working against Jackson is the fact that he is disliked by the Daley machine, a powerful contingent that has kept him out of some House committees in the past. The other factor working against Jackson is his father, who has been a thorn in seemingly everybody's sides this election cycle.

5-1: Lisa Madigan (IL Atty. General)

Unlike others, I'm giving much higher odds to Lisa Madigan. Madigan, a rising star in Illinois politics, matches the profile of a serious candidate for the Senate. She's young, liberal, ambitious, well-connected, and wildly popular. Unlike Jackson, she's won a statewide race. Plus, by appointing her, Gov. Blago gets one of his fiercest critics out of his hair, and wins favor with another: Lisa's father, and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan. A potential 2 for the price of 1, if you will.

However, Gov. Blago's many political enemies are like the mythical Hydra: cut down one, and two grow in their place. Even if Madigan weren't around to challenge him in 2010, other candidates are ready to step in. Also, the Senate currently has 13 women, but only one African-American.

5-1: Tammy Duckworth (IL Dir. of Veterans Affairs)

One candidate that all the political forces in Illinois can agree on is Tammy Duckworth. She is reportedly well-liked by Durbin, Obama, Rahm Emmanuel and even Gov. Blago. If appointed, she would be first Asian-American women in the Senate (one of three Asian senators in the next congress if appointed), and to my knowledge, the first Iraqi War veteran in the Senate.

The only thing holding her back is the fact that she has never been elected to a public office before. While she came close in 2006, and has served as the appointed Director of Veteran's Affairs, nearly all the other people being considered for the position have at least one publicly elected position in their resume. In addition, Obama may be “saving” Duckworth for a cabinet position, specifically the Secretary of Veteran's Affairs.

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