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The political peril of a Senate appointment

at 07:11 AM ET, 04/22/2011

Sen. John Ensign’s (R-Nev.) impending resignation presents newly minted Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) with the often unenviable task of appointing a temporary successor.

This is a necessary evil for many governors, and the decision is often frought with peril. Sandoval will be, after all, handing out a two-year pass to the most exclusive club in politics. What could go wrong?

Early reports indicate the decision is actually rather easy, and that Sandoval will probably pick Rep. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who is already running for the seat.

But don’t count on it being that easy. It rarely is.

Recent history shows there is plenty to be lost during the appointment process. Governors can often be accused of exchanging political favors, installing personal allies in the Senate or giving one candidate a leg up over another for the next election.

To wit, in the last few years alone:

* Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) was under plenty of presure to appoint a temporary replacement for Ted Kennedy in 2009 in order to pass the Democratic health care bill. The state legislature wound up ramming through a bill, at Patrick’s urging, that would give Patrick that power. Even some Democrats resisted.

* Former New York Gov. David Paterson (D) flirted with appointing Caroline Kennedy (that didn’t go well) and then took flack from liberals for picking centrist Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to replace Hillary Clinton.

* Former Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D), at the tail end of her tenure and with her popularity waning, declined to appoint Beau Biden to his father’s Senate seat and instead picked Vice President Biden’s longtime aide, Ted Kaufman.

* And New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) was almost forced to appoint a Republican when it looked like then-Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) would become Obama’s Commerce Secretary, per an agreement reached by the White House.

Another thing to keep in mind: Sandoval would force a special election for Heller’s seat if he appoints the congressman. That could cost Republicans a House seat and cost the taxpayers money. (One potential benefit: it doesn’t appear there would be primaries, so GOP leaders would likely avert Sharron Angle winning the GOP nomination.)

OK, so we’ve established that this has the potential to not be fun for Sandoval. What about Heller?

On the surface, this seems like a great deal. Heller gets to fundraise as an incumbent U.S. senator, show the entire state how he would govern and, even more than before, would have a guaranteed primary win.

But the appointment also risks ties to Sandoval. The governor is new and relatively popular right now, but so was Charlie Crist when former Sen. George LeMieux won his appointment to the Senate (a tie LeMieux would much rather not have to deal with as he runs for Senate in his own right). If something happens with Sandoval over the next two years, Heller can very easily be tied to him.

Being appointed to the Senate means Heller would also have to vote in the Senate. It’s not clear that would be much more difficult than voting in the House, but sometimes the chambers vote on different things, and there may be more focus on his votes once he is appointed.

Heller would also have to put up with the perception that he was given the seat, instead of earning it. Again, this would be more of a problem if he actually had primary challengers, but even in the general election, voters may bristle at the idea that he deserves the seat after being appointed.

All of that said, nine of the last 10 appointees who ran in the next election have won that race (the last one to fail was Missouri Democrat Jean Carnahan). So Heller would probably be just fine.

Sandoval has more to lose here.

Heinrich gets primary opponent: Rep. Martin Heinrich will have competition for the Democratic Senate nomination in New Mexico, after state Auditor Hector Balderas filed for the race.

New Mexico political guru Heath Haussamen reports that Balderas will officially announce his campaign next week.

Balderas was being mentioned alongside Heinrich when Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) first announced that he wouldn’t seek reelection. And as a statewide officeholder and Hispanic candidate in a Democratic primary in New Mexico, he brings a significant presence to the race.

But Balderas will have to become more familiar with voters. A recent poll of the Democratic primary put Balderas fourth in a hypothetical four-way primary, at just 5 percent and well behind Heinrich, Lt. Gov. Diane Denish and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan. (Lujan hasn’t ruled out a Senate bid of his own.)

Balderas, a former state legislator, was elected auditor in 2006 at the age of 33 and was reelected in November with 55 percent of the vote.

GOP gets a taste of tough town halls: In the summer of 2009, Democratic legislators working on health care reform were met with angry protesters at town halls in their districts.

Now, Republicans home for a short break are seeing a similar reaction against the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).

GOP Reps. Charlie Bass (N.H.), Lou Barletta (Pa.) and Robert Dold (Ill.) have all been hectored. And Ryan himself was booed.

So far, the protests are scattered and have yet to approached anything close to the reaction to the health care bill in 2009.

Coverage of Palin drops precipitously: The media seems to have lost its appetite for Sarah Palin, as the presidential race slowly lurches to a start.

Data highlighted by the New York Times’s Nate Silver show Palin being mentioned less and less relative to other potential presidential candidates. In November, she was featured in 51 percent of mentions of potential presidential candidates; by February it was just 17 percent, and today she is just 11 percent.

What’s perhaps more interesting about Palin’s fall is that it doesn’t correspond with the ascendance of Donald Trump. In fact, well before the Trump coverage exploded, Palin declined significantly.

Part of this is that Palin dominates the news when there’s not much else to talk about. When there is, the fact that she doesn’t cooperate with the mainstream media means she gets left out of the conversation.

It could also be a reflection of her struggles in the polls. As the media becomes more convinced that she can’t win, it becomes harder to justify spending time on her.

Colorado can’t agree on map: Colorado’s redistricting committee failed to meet its deadline Thursday, and the legislators involved have asked for more time to draw a map that can pass both the GOP-held state House and the Democratic-held state Senate.

The group was supposed to scrap 11 proposed maps from both sides and draw one agreeable to everyone involved. Democrats want more competitive districts; Republicans want to more or less preserve the districts they have and preserve rural voters’ clout.

That’s understandable, seeing as Republicans have a 4-3 edge in the state. Democrats’ map, meanwhile, would have given them a chance to retake at least two GOP districts.

The committee co-chairs think they can get it done in 10 days. But the four legislative leaders of the House and Senate must agree to give the 10-member committee more time.

If they can’t agree on a map, it goes to court, and a judge draws the lines. That’s what happened in the state for the past three decades — not a good omen for this round of negotiations.

Fixbits:

Approval of Congress is down to 17 percent in a new Gallup poll and is approaching a new low.

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) says he may run for president “someday,” but he doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry.

Voters are still very much split on President Obama’s handling of the situation in Libya, according to a new McClatchy poll conducted by Marist College.

For the record, former New York governor George Pataki (R) says he’s not running for president.

Mike Huckabee hits back at Glenn Beck after the Fox News host labeled him a “progressive.”

Former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) is suing the Federal Election Commission to force super PACs to disclose their donors.

The Hill’s Christian Heinze notices a key quote from Jon Huntsman adviser-to-be John Weaver. Weaver tries to defend Huntsman’s service as Obama’s ambassador to China by saying: “If you’re asked by the President of the United States to serve your country in a foreign policy or national security role and you don’t do it, that’s disqualifying.”

Must-reads:

Romney criticizes Obama on Libya policy” — Matt Viser, Boston Globe

Obama still strong heading into 2012 election” — Kenneth T. Walsh, U.S. News and World Report

 
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