Analysis: Appointed Senators And Elections

By John Celock

Appointed members of the U.S. Senate come with a double edge sword. They get the power of incumbency and the perks that come with being a senator, but at the same time they acquire a voting record and the decreased time to campaign, in what could be a short time frame election.

Tuesday’s defeat of appointed Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary is the first time an appointed senator has lost a bid to keep their seat in 15 years and part of a line of appointed senators who have lost. Each appointed senator has lost for a variety of reasons, many guided by their state and their time in history. Strange’s defeat is testament to growth of the hard right voters in the Alabama GOP primary, the high name recognition of his opponent, former state Chief Justice Roy Moore and lingering questions over Strange’s decisions as state attorney general in the investigation of former Gov. Robert Bentley (R). Bentley appointed Strange to the Senate to replace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Strange has long been viewed as a likely appointee to the Senate or Senate candidate for Sessions’ seat, capitalizing on two terms as state attorney general. The decisions he made in terms of the Bentley investigation, including asking for delays by the state Legislature clouded Bentley’s decision to appoint him to the Senate. Bentley had originally given Strange a Senate term through the November 2018 election but Gov. Kay Ivey (R) changed that, saying that state law required a special election this year.

Strange is the second consecutive appointed senator in Alabama to be defeated in a bid to hold on to the seat for the full term. In 1978, then Sen. Maryon Allen (D) lost the Democratic primary runoff to state Sen. Donald Stewart, who went on to win the seat. Allen had been appointed to the Senate earlier that year to succeed her late husband.

The last time an appointed senator lost in a bid to keep their seat was in 2002, when Sen. Jean Carnahan (D-Mo) was defeated in the general election by Republican Jim Talent. The Carnahan loss was part of a national GOP wave that year. Prior to Carnahan’s defeat, Sen. Sheila Frahm (R-Kan.) lost in 1996 to Republican Sam Brownback in a race that pitted the moderate Frahm against the conservative Brownback and in 1993 Sen. Bob Krueger (D-Tex.) lost his race to Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson.

Of the 15 appointed senators, prior to Stranger, in the last decade, the seven who ran to keep their seats won the elections. The other eight declined to seek election to stay in the Senate. That number includes Montana Democrat John Walsh, who dropped his Senate campaign after resume padding and plagiarism charges surfaced.

When Allen lost her bid to stay in the Senate in 1978, she was one of three appointed senators to lose their bids that year. In Montana, Democratic Sen. Paul Hatfield lost his campaign to stay in office, a defeat caused in part by his decision to vote for the Panama Canal Treaties. In Minnesota, Democratic Sen. Wendell Anderson was defeated largely due to his orchestrating his appointment to the Senate from his prior office as Minnesota governor. Two appointed senators that year, Sen. Muriel Humphrey (D-Minn.) and Sen. Kaneaster Hodges (D-Ark.) did not seek to stay in the Senate.

Several other appointed senators in recent years had been viewed as endangered right after their appointments and then pulled off election to the Senate. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was viewed as vulnerable right after her 2002 appointment, which came from her father, then Alaska’s governor and former senator. She pulled off a 2004 win against a former two-term governor. In New York, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) was viewed as vulnerable after her 2009 appointment, based on more moderate views, an Upstate base and her appointment by an unpopular governor. She easily won her 2010 bid to hold on to her seat and continues in office.

Appointed senators continue to grow in their ability to retain their seats and leverage their temporary time in the Senate to remain in office. The defeat of Strange does raise caution on whether a temporary appointment to the Senate will help or hurt a candidate but with his defeat being the first time in 15 years an appointed senator was defeated, the odds still favor appointed senators going forward.