Obama, Biden Seats in Danger?

by Nathan L. Gonzales July 31, 2009 · 9:00 AM EDT

Lost in the focus on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s history-making move down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in January was the fact that Republicans have a historic opportunity to pick up the pair’s former Senate seats.

Over the past century, half of the dozen seats vacated by a new president or vice president have switched partisan control in the next election. Click here for the Senate chart.

In 2010, Republicans have open-seat opportunities in Illinois and Delaware and could win both seats vacated by a president and vice president in the same cycle for the first time in U.S. history.

The last time a newly elected president and vice president gave up their Senate seats the same year was in 1960. Democrats held President John F. Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat in the next election, but the party lost Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s Texas seat when appointed Sen. William Blakley (D) narrowly lost a 1961 special election to John Tower (R).

“Obviously people see these as elected [not appointed] offices,” said former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who was appointed to fill the vacancy in 1989 when Sen. Dan Quayle was elected vice president. “That’s why the first election is so critical.”

Democratic chances of holding Obama’s seat improved when appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) decided not to run next year. Burris’ tenure has been overshadowed by fallout from his controversial appointment by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who has since been indicted and impeached. But after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) took a pass on the Senate race and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) jumped in, Republican chances improved dramatically.

In Delaware, former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) appointed longtime Biden aide Ted Kaufman (D) as a placeholder to fill the vice president’s Senate seat. State Attorney General Beau Biden (D) is expected to run for his father’s seat once he returns from active duty in Iraq. Meanwhile, political operatives on both sides of the aisle are waiting for Rep. Mike Castle (R) to make a decision on the race. With Castle, who has represented the entire state both as Congressman and governor, this race might be one of the best GOP takeover opportunities in the country. Without him, it’s not even competitive.

Over the past 100 years, three Senate seats vacated by a president-elect or vice president-elect have been filled with placeholders (not including Kaufman).

In 1948, Democrats held the seat vacated by Alben Barkley (D-Ky.), who was elected vice president under Harry Truman. When appointed Sen. Garrett Withers (D-Ky.) did not run in 1950, Earle Clements defeated Charles Dawson (R) to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Clements lost re-election six years later.

After Kennedy’s election in 1960, Benjamin Smith II (D-Mass.) was appointed to his Senate seat until the election in 1962, when the president’s brother, Edward Kennedy (D), was old enough run and serve.

More recently, Republicans took over the seat vacated by then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) after he and Bill Clinton were elected to the White House in 1992. Appointed Sen. Harlan Mathews (D-Tenn.) didn’t seek a full term, and Fred Thompson (R) defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper 60 percent to 39 percent in the Republican wave of 1994.

The political environment was a critical factor in many of these Senate races.
“Some of these things are beyond the candidate’s control,” former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz (R-Minn.) said in a recent interview. “Dynamics come up that are quite beyond you.”

Boschwitz was elected to the Senate in 1978 when he defeated Democrat Wendell Anderson, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy created when then-Sen. Walter Mondale (D-Minn.) was elected Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Republicans netted three seats in the Senate and 15 in the House that cycle, but the appointment became an issue as well.

Anderson had resigned as governor in order to be appointed to Mondale’s seat by the new governor. Self-appointments are rare and can be politically trickier to explain to voters. In Minnesota, Anderson’s maneuver became an issue, the midterm cycle turned against the Democrats and Boschwitz took issue with Anderson’s absenteeism, resulting in a 17-point victory. Boschwitz held the seat until he lost to Democrat Paul Wellstone by two points in 1990.

The stock market crash helped George McGill (D) defeat appointed-Sen. Henry Allen (R-Kansas) in 1930, who was appointed to the seat vacated when Charles Curtis (R-Kansas) was elected vice president under Herbert Hoover two years earlier. McGill was the last Democrat to represent Kansas in the Senate.

Historically, appointed Senators who follow a president or vice president into office and then run for a full term have had nearly equal odds of winning or losing in the next election.

Before Anderson in Minnesota, Mondale was appointed to the seat in 1965 when Hubert Humphrey was elected vice president under Johnson. Mondale was elected in his own right in 1966 with 54 percent and served until he was elected vice president.

“The election is a way of ratifying or denying that appointment,” Coats explained. “Ninety percent of Indiana didn’t know who I was, so I thought I better get in front of them.” After his appointment to Quayle’s seat, the former Congressman defeated Democrat Baron Hill with 54 percent in 1990 and was elected to a full term in 1992 with 57 percent.

After Sen. Richard Nixon (R-Calif.) was elected vice president under Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, appointed Sen. Thomas Kuchel was elected to the remainder of Nixon’s term in 1954 and served until 1968.

Along with Allen in Kansas, the Blakley loss in Texas in the 1960s and Anderson’s loss in the 1980s, Democrats lost Harry Truman’s Missouri Senate seat, the only presidential Senate seat to immediately switch party hands in the last century.

Frank Briggs (D) was appointed in Missouri after Truman was elected vice president under Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1944. But when Roosevelt died a few months later, Truman ascended to the presidency. Then in 1946, Briggs lost to James Kem (R), who was known as a staunch Truman opponent. Kem served only one term before he lost re-election to Stuart Symington (D).

Surely, the White House doesn’t want to fuel Republican confidence or give the party a rallying cry by letting Obama’s or Biden’s Senate seat fall into GOP hands.

Republicans lost Vice President Gerald Ford’s Michigan House seat in a February 1974 special election at a time when Nixon’s approval was sagging. The race also foreshadowed larger GOP losses that would come that fall.

Democrat Richard Vander Veen’s special election victory was remarkable since the Grand Rapids-area district hadn’t elected a Democrat since 1912 — and hasn’t elected one again since 1974.

Ford’s seat is one of two House seats that have been vacated by an incoming vice president.

Speaker John Nance Garner (D-Texas) left Congress when he was elected vice president under FDR in 1932. Milton West kept Garner’s 15th district seat in Democratic hands for seven terms, but Garner may have been a bit jealous since he famously described his new job as “not worth a bucket of warm piss.”