Luther Strange and a Brief History of the Electoral Fate of Appointed US Senators

Only 56 percent of appointed U.S. Senators running to keep their seat have been victorious over the last half-century

The number of Republican candidates lining up to challenge Luther Strange in Alabama’s 2017 special election is getting longer by the week.

Strange, the former state attorney general who took office in early February after long-serving Senator Jeff Sessions was confirmed to Donald Trump’s cabinet, was appointed to his seat by the disgraced and now former Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.

Since Bentley’s resignation on April 10th, candidacies have been announced by State Representative Ed Henry, Christian Coalition head Randy Brinson, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore.

Additional GOPers are expected to file for the August 15th primary, with that contest (or the September 26th runoff) likely to produce the eventual winner of the December 12th special election. [Republicans have won each of the last eight U.S. Senate contests in the state since 1996 with Democratic nominees failing to win 40 percent of the vote in the last seven].

Senator Strange will have a half-year of service in D.C. under his belt at the time of the primary. So what are the odds he will still be in office by 2018?

Smart Politics examined the nearly 200 appointments to the U.S. Senate since 1913 and found that just 34 percent of appointees won the subsequent election for that seat: 36 percent chose not to run, 12 percent failed to win their party’s nomination, and 17 percent lost the subsequent election. Of the 125 appointees who ran for reelection, just 54 percent were victorious.

In total there have been 196 appointments to the U.S. Senate in the direct election era.

Of the 195 appointees prior to Strange, 70 did not run for election to the chamber the next time their seat was on the ballot (35.9 percent), leaving 125 candidates seeking to remain in the chamber. [Note: A few of these 125 appointed senators did not run in the special election for the seat to which they were appointed, but ran instead in the election held simultaneously for the state’s other senate seat].

Appointees who sought to hold their U.S. Senate seat have generally had a solid record of winning their party’s nomination – particularly in recent decades – with 101 of 125 doing so, or 80.8 percent.

Since 1980, that number has been even more impressive with 21 of 22 receiving their party’s nomination, including each of the last 12 since 1999.

That, at least in a political vacuum, is good news for Senator Strange who will face a large primary field of well-known GOPers in August.

The only senator who failed in such an attempt since 1980 was Kansas Republican Sheila Frahm in 1996. Frahm was appointed to the seat in June 1996 after Bob Dole resigned to focus on his presidential bid.

Freshman U.S. Representative Sam Brownback defeated Frahm in the primary three months later by 13.1 points in a three-candidate field.

The nine previous nomination bids and the 12 that followed were all successful:

  • 1982: Maine Democrat George Mitchell
  • 1983: Washington Republican Daniel Evans
  • 1986: North Carolina Republican James Broyhill
  • 1988: Nebraska Republican David Karnes
  • 1990: Indiana Republican Dan Coats
  • 1990: Hawaii Democrat Daniel Akaka
  • 1991: Pennsylvania Democrat Harris Wofford
  • 1992: California Republican John Seymour
  • 1993: Texas Democrat Robert Krueger
  • 2000: Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee
  • 2000: Georgia Democrat Zell Miller
  • 2002: Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan
  • 2004: Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski
  • 2006: New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez
  • 2008: Wyoming Republican John Barrasso
  • 2008: Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker
  • 2010: Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet
  • 2010: New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand
  • 2012: Nevada Republican Dean Heller
  • 2014: Hawaii Democrat Brian Schatz
  • 2014: South Carolina Republican Tim Scott

It should be noted 11 appointed senators did not run for election to their seat during these last 37 years (with a 12th, Minnesota’s Dean Barkley, appointed in between the election and the beginning of the next congress due to the death of Paul Wellstone shortly before Election Day in 2002).

Of the 101 appointees who were successful in receiving their party’s nomination, 67 came out on top in the subsequent election (66.3 percent).

All told, that means just slightly more than half of appointed U.S. Senators who attempted to hold their seat were successful in doing so – 67 of 125 (53.6 percent).

The election rate for appointed Senators has only been slightly higher in recent decades, with just 18 of 32 appointees victorious in their U.S. Senate campaigns over the last 50 years, or 56.3 percent.

By contrast, the reelection rate of incumbents in the chamber overall during this span is north of 80 percent.

This disparity makes intuitive sense: appointed Senators have not had as many years to establish and capitalize on the ‘incumbency advantage’ – usually serving far shorter stints than a true freshman who gets six years to nurture their new relationship with his or her constituency.

Perhaps just as important, unlike a true freshman who earned the seat at the ballot box, voters are perhaps less enamored by appointees who bypassed the electorate en route to the chamber in the first instance (particularly when the governor who appointed them has low approval numbers).

Appointed senators who were defeated in the primary or special election over the last half-century include New York Republican Charles Goodell (in 1970), Illinois Republican Ralph Smith (1970), Georgia Democrat David Gambrell (1972), Ohio Democrat Howard Metzenbaum (1974), Minnesota DFLer Wendy Anderson (1978), Montana Democrat Paul Hatfield (1978), Alabama Democrat Maryon Allen (1978), North Carolina Republican James Broyhill (1986), Nebraska Republican David Karnes (1988), California Republican John Seymour (1992), Texas Democrat Robert Krueger (1993), Kansas Republican Sheila Frahm (1996), and Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan (2002).

[New Hampshire Republican Louis Wyman was also appointed to a senate seat in December 1974, which he held for four days at the close of the 93rd Congress, after that state’s controversial and incredibly close election. However, Wyman was not an incumbent at the time of the September 1975 special election, which he lost to Democrat John Durkin, with Republican Norris Cotton eventually appointed back to the seat from which he retired in August until the electoral mess was finally resolved one months later].

Ron Crumpton, the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee in the race against Dick Shelby, is a candidate once again for the office in this year’s special election.

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1 Comment on "Luther Strange and a Brief History of the Electoral Fate of Appointed US Senators"

  1. 1. Voters are especially “less enamored” of those who ARRANGE their own appointments to the chamber (W Anderson/1978, et. al.); thus far, only KY D Governor “Happy” Chandler succeeded in this particular form of “bypass”.
    2. Aside from “low approval numbers”, nepotism -whether familial or factional- also tends to at best hinder the appointee: 1) NC/1986: Had Governor James Martin appointed primary loser David Funderburk as “caretaker” senator rather than the nominee (Representative Broyhill) to the unexpected vacancy, the hard-right core of the party would have been (much) more enthused about actively working for its intraparty rival (Broyhill would lose by less than 2.5% to ex-Governor Sanford). 2) AK/2004: Governor F Murkowski’s appointment arguably played a not insignificant part in his early exit from the political arena (sans it and several other gaffes and blunders, Senator McCain surely would have had a different “Veep” choice, and SNL surely would have been a tad blander that season!), and it apparently continues to cast a pall on Murkowski the younger, though not solely due to resentment and resistance on the part of the state’s anti-monarchist bloc (Senator Lisa M has clinched a majority vote just 2 out of 6 elections to date, NONE in the general election).
    3. The situation that Senator Strange is in bears a striking (surface) resemblance to that of interim Senator Roland Burris (D-IL; 2009-10). My surmise is that Strange’s tenure -given the “quid-pro-quo” allegations leveled against him vis-a-vis ex Governor Bentley- will turn out to be just as fleeting.

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