Craig Scandal: All Eyes on a Governor, Again
Gubernatorial powers to appoint U.S. senators
*Note: Some states specify that appointments must be made within designated time frames
Source: National Conference of State Legislatures
For the third time in less than a year, the sudden departure from office of a U.S. senator – or the threat of a departure – has thrust a governor into the national spotlight, calling attention to the sometimes murky and often politicized process of how states choose congressional replacements.
The recent vacancies – or near-vacancies – have highlighted differences in state procedures for filling positions in Congress and the varied roles of governors in naming successors, especially in the exclusive, 100-member Senate, where openings are relatively rare.
In Idaho , the governor figures prominently in the process. If embattled U.S. Sen. Larry Craig (R) decides to resign from office, as is widely expected, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) will have full authority to appoint a replacement for the senior senator, who was arrested in a sex sting operation inside a men’s restroom at an airport in Minnesota in June. Otter can choose anyone he wants, and rumors are swirling over whom the appointee might be, even as Craig fights an uphill battle to keep his job after pleading guilty to disorderly conduct.
The death of Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas (R) in June put Gov. Dave Freudenthal in a similar position, but with one major difference – Freudenthal is a Democrat. Uncommon among states, however, Wyoming law required Freudenthal to choose from three candidates nominated by the state Republican Party; he chose John Barrasso, a conservative former state senator. A special election next year will determine a permanent replacement for Thomas, whose term was set to expire in 2013.
Perhaps the most closely watched recent Senate seat was that of South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson (D). His seat at the time represented the single-vote majority won by Democrats in the upper chamber during last year’s midterm elections, when voters ousted the GOP from the majority in both houses for the first time since 1994.
Johnson fell critically ill and underwent emergency brain surgery in December, feeding widespread speculation about whether he would be forced to relinquish his seat – and whether Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, would use the rarest of opportunities to alter the balance of power in the U.S. Senate by appointing a replacement from his own party, as South Dakota law allows him to do. History contributed to the rumors: in 2002, Rounds filled a Democratic state Senate seat with a Republican.
But the issue became moot when Johnson recovered, returning to the Senate last Wednesday (Sept. 5) for the first time since his illness.
Sudden vacancies in Congress – and especially in the Senate – always touch off political jockeying among potential replacements and their supporters and place governors under a microscope, said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia ‘s Center for Politics . Because of that attention, governors are reluctant to make controversial appointments, he said.
In Wyoming , for example, the Democratic Freudenthal could have picked the weakest of the three Republican nominees – but did not do so, according to Sabato.
“If a governor is smart, he’s going to conduct a search for a Senate vacancy as a job interview and pick the best-qualified person in his party,” Sabato said. Voters “expect a very competent person to be named – and the people didn’t get a chance to pick this person.”
But past appointments have not been without controversy. In 2002, then-Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski (R) caused a stir when he appointed his daughter, Lisa, to the Senate seat he himself had vacated. State voters in 2004 stripped the governor’s appointment power.
Governors in at least two states – Minnesota and Oklahoma – have resigned only so their successors could appoint them to open seats in the Senate. Then-Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson (D) did so in 1976; then-Oklahoma Gov. J. Howard Edmondson (D) did so in 1963. Like Alaska, Oklahoma has since stripped its governor of that power.
Governors in all but eight states can appoint anyone they choose to fill a vacancy in the Senate – either until a special election can be arranged or until the next general election, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Three states – Arizona , Hawaii and Wyoming – restrict the governor’s choice to a member of the political party that last held the seat. In five states – Alaska , Massachusetts , Oklahoma , Oregon and Wisconsin – the governor has no authority to appoint a successor, and elections are required before the job can be filled.
Wyoming ‘s Barrasso will serve only until a public vote next year, though he is expected to run for a permanent seat. Idaho , on the other hand, would not hold a special election if and when Otter chooses Craig’s replacement, because Craig’s seat is up for re-election next year anyway.
For seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, states most often turn to voters to fill vacancies. Ohio will hold a special election to replace Rep. Paul E. Gillmor (R), who was found dead in his apartment in Arlington , Va. , last Wednesday (Sept. 5). Similarly, special elections were held when Georgia Rep. Charlie Norwood (R) died in February, California Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D) died in April and Massachusetts Rep. Martin Meehan (D) stepped down in July.
States hold special elections to fill vacancies that occur during the first session of Congress, according to the Office of the Clerk of the House of Representatives. Procedures vary in the second session of Congress, depending on how much time remains before the next general election, with seats sometimes remaining open.
House replacements almost always are chosen by voters and appointments are rare, said Tim Storey, an elections expert with NCSL.
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