Not All State Offices Are Political Launching Pads

by Stuart Rothenberg April 1, 2013 · 9:25 AM EDT

My colleague Nathan Gonzales has written a terrific piece on Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, the young Democrat mentioned as a potential challenger to veteran GOP Sen. Mitch McConnell. He explains her election as Kentucky secretary of state and her family’s connection to the Clintons, among other things.

But while her position as a statewide elected official would seem to make Grimes a formidable contender for the Democratic nomination and possibly even a threat to McConnell, her office probably isn’t much of a launching pad for a tough U.S. Senate race.

Other than state attorney general and state treasurer, most downballot state offices don’t have enough visibility to translate immediately to a high-profile federal race. There are former secretaries of state in the Senate, but they generally were elected to another office — Joe Manchin and Jay Rockefeller became governor, while Sherrod Brown, Dean Heller and Roy Blunt were in the House — before winning election to the Senate.

Moreover, history is littered with heavily promoted downballot statewide officeholders who lost primaries or general elections.

I could go all the way back to Connecticut Secretary of State Gloria Schaffer’s unsuccessful 1976 race against then-Republican Sen. Lowell Weicker, but let’s stick with this century and the stunningly unsuccessful runs by Democratic secretaries of state Elaine Marshall of North Carolina, Jennifer Brunner of Ohio, Robin Carnahan of Missouri and Bill Bradbury of Oregon and Republican Trey Grayson of Kentucky.

And please don’t forget former South Carolina Superintendent of Education Inez Tenenbaum, a strong Democratic vote-getter in the Palmetto State, who was re-elected to her state office in 2002 with more than 59 percent of the vote but drew just 44 percent when she ran for the Senate two years later. She demonstrated that a Democrat can be successful in a downballot state race but not be a terribly strong contender for a statewide federal contest in a conservative, Republican state.