The Good Old Days

Maybe it’s a sign that I am finally getting old, but I seem to recall a quaint time in years past where governors seemed content to fill Senate vacancies with caretakers who served out the term and did not seek reelection. The norm against using the appointment to launch a Senate career was so strong that many serious politicians shied away from accepting.

Fortunately, the useful people at the Senate Historical Office have compiled a list of all appointed Senators since the adoption of the 17th amendment and whether they ran for and won election to a full term. So I can test my recollections against hard data.

The list contains 180 appointed Senators. More than a third, 63 to be exact, chose not to run for election to a full term (one died in office). And many of those that did run suffered an ignominious fate. Twenty-two were not nominated by their party and 34 were defeated in the general election for a full term. So only 60 appointees, less than a third, actually won a full term as senator.

So how have things changed over time? To see, I have broken up the data by decade.

Decade Total Appointees Did Not Run Lost Nomination Lost General Won
1910’s 16 7 1 2 6
1920’s 26 7 2 6 11
1930’s 29 10 5 3 11
1940’s 38 19 4 5 10
1950’s 21 11 2 5 3
1960’s 20 3 3 7 7
1970’s 9 3 4 1 1
1980’s 6 1 0 2 3
1990’s 8 2 1 2 3
2000’s 7 1 0 1 5

Some interesting patterns emerge. The number of vacancies filled by gubernatorial appointment has fallen. I’m not sure, but I suspect it is some combination of the increasing use of special elections and increased longevity of senators (fewer die in office). There is also some evidence in favor of my recollections of the good old days. A greater percentage of appointed senators run for a full term over the past several decades than before (full discloser: I’m actually not old enough to remember those good old days). The appointees have fared significantly better in elections over time (especially in the last decade). If Blago is right and an appointed Senate seat is “an f—-ing valuable thing”, it appears that its appreciation is quite recent.

It seems to me that the changing expectations about how this appointment power is to be used calls further into question the continuance of this practice. Back in the day when most appointed senators were placeholders and caretakers, granting this power to a governor seemed okay. Now that the norm is that appointed senators are expected to run for reelection and hold the seat, the practice creates more opportunities for corruption and conflicts of interest than we really ought to tolerate.