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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

The Worst Idea in Politics

Governors Appointing Themselves

The recent death of Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia has many, many consequences. For example, until his replacement is decided, Byrd’s seat – the 60th Democratic seat in the Senate – deprives the majority of the vote needed to stop a filibuster. Also, depending on how things play in West Virginia, the “safe” Byrd seat could be a seat Democrats have to protect, particularly if there is a special election in the fall.

Nothing upsets a state’s politics quite like a Senate vacancy, which brings me to the fellow pictured nearby – Governor then Senator Charles Gossett of Idaho.

As I noted in a post a few months back, Gossett is one of two Northwesterners – Montana’s John Erickson being the other – who engineered their own appointments to the U.S. Senate. It is a horrible idea and nearly always fatal to the politician doing the engineering.

Perhaps this is why West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who reportedly longs for Byrd’s Senate seat, has repeatedly ruled out appointing himself. Maybe that self awareness helps explain the governor’s 70% approval rating in the Mountaineer State. Still, the state’s AFL-CIO, among others, has publicly called for Manchin to reconsider. Bad idea, Governor.

Nine governors have tried the, “gee, I think I’ll appoint myself to the Senate” approach. Eight of them subsequently lost a primary or the very next opportunity to confront the voters, Gossett and Erickson included. Only one governor has been able to pull off this political slight of hand, Kentucky’s Albert B. “Happy” Chandler in 1939. Chandler went on to win a special election and then a full term and then resigned his Senate seat in 1945 to become Commissioner of Baseball. It says all one needs to know about Chandler’s Senate career that he is best remembered for succeeding Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis and approving Jackie Robinson’s major league contract in 1947, but that’s another story.

At least one very promising political career ended when a governor appointed himself to the Senate. In 1977, Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson, a rising star in national Democratic politics, decided he was the best choice to replace Walter Mondale who had left his Senate seat vacant when he was elected Vice President.

Anderson, handsome, well-spoken, known to Minnesotans as “Wendy”, had graced the cover of TIME magazine in 1973 while wearing a plaid shirt and holding a big ol’ northern pike. Anderson, it seemed, was a young man with a bright political future. It all ended with the “Minnesota Massacre” of 1978. The Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party – the DFL – suffered a shackling at the polls that year. Anderson lost the Senate election and his former Lt. Governor, Rudy Perpich, who had facilitated Wendy’s Senate aspirations, lost the Governor’s race. The voters took out their resentment on politicians who were seen as too smart by half. Generally speaking, voters hate an inside deal. In the Minnesota case, once they had punished him, voters did give Perpich a second chance. He came back to win and go on to become the state’s longest serving governor.

When a Senate vacancy occurs, it must be tempting for a governor having won a statewide race, having built a political organization, to look in the mirror and think: “there is no one better for this job.”

History says there are better choices – and they include anyone but the governor.

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