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Obama's Choice of Elected Officials for Administration Leaves Seats Vulnerable

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By Chris Cillizza
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 29, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama's speed in naming Cabinet nominees and top White House staffers has drawn praise from many within his party but also has left a series of likely vacancies that could endanger Democratic electoral prospects in the coming months and reduce diversity within party ranks.

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Roughly a dozen current Democratic officeholders are rumored to be vacating their current posts for jobs in the Obama administration, potentially leaving openings that carry varying levels of concern for Democratic strategists.

In Arizona, for example, Gov. Janet Napolitano's likely ascension to the Department of Homeland Security means that Secretary of State Jan Brewer, a Republican, would assume the governorship through 2010 -- providing the GOP an unexpected advantage in that open-seat race.

Obama's own election has caused a problem, as embattled Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who continues to mull running for a third term in 2010, is solely charged with picking a successor -- and any tie to Blagojevich could endanger a nominee's election in 2010.

Blagojevich is already coming under pressure to name an African American in Obama's place, as the president-elect was the only black member of the Senate. In picking New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as commerce secretary, Obama has removed the lone Latino governor in the country, while his choice of Napolitano (and potentially Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius) would reduce the number of female governors by one-quarter.

"Obama has clearly decided that creating a series of political crises for Democrats is worth it if it means having the right people in government to help him deal with the series of crisis facing the nation," said Joe Trippi, a Democratic consultant who managed former Vermont governor Howard Dean's 2004 presidential nomination bid.

A look at recent presidential transitions reveals that Obama is relying more on a stable of elected officials than did either President Bush or former president Bill Clinton.

In 2000, two of Bush's Cabinet picks were elected officials: Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who, in the middle of his fourth term, was looking for a new job; and Mel Martinez, who was serving as chairman of the Orange County, Fla., government. (Martinez went on to win one of Florida's U.S. Senate seats in 2004.)

Eight years earlier, Clinton disrupted Democratic politics a bit more by plucking two senators -- Al Gore of Tennessee as vice president and Lloyd Bentsen of Texas as Treasury secretary -- and two congressmen -- Mike Espy of Mississippi as agriculture secretary and Les Aspin of Wisconsin as defense secretary. Democrats lost Bentsen's seat in a 1993 special election and Gore's and Aspin's seats in the 1994 election. Only Espy's seat remained in Democratic hands.

Among Obama's picks, Napolitano poses the biggest potential problem for Democrats. In an odd bit of succession politics, she would hand over the governor's office to Brewer, a Republican, because Arizona has no lieutenant governor.

Like its Western neighbors, Arizona has moved toward the Democrats in recent years, and the assumption was that Napolitano would have either run against Sen. John McCain (R) in 2010 or been a candidate for the open seat had McCain won the presidency. (McCain said late last week that he intends to run for a fifth term.) Republicans had no obvious choices -- beyond Brewer -- for their candidate in 2010 and would have probably begun as the underdogs, given the solid Democratic field, led by state Attorney General Terry Goddard. Now, however, Brewer could spend the better part of the next two years as the governor of the state, a major advantage as she seeks to win in her own right in 2010.

At the Senate level, Obama's resignation has set off a behind-the-scenes battle to win Blagojevich's appointment to the Senate.

Rep. Jesse L. Jackson Jr. has made his interest in the appointment public and recently won the endorsement of the Chicago Defender, a powerful black-owned newspaper. "Senator Obama is the only African-American Senator," the paper argued in an editorial supporting Jackson. "If the Senate has any hope of reflecting today's face of America, this seat (once held by Carol Moseley-Braun) should be filled by an African-American."

The other individuals mentioned as possible picks include Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs Director Tammy Duckworth and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan.

Finally, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s election as vice president, coupled with his son's deployment to Iraq, has created a complicated succession scenario in Delaware. State Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III has long been seen as the natural heir to the seat his father has held since 1972, but the younger Biden's deployment with the Delaware National Guard foreclosed the idea of appointing him in early 2009.

Instead, outgoing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) named longtime Biden chief of staff Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman to take the Senate seat once the vice president-elect steps down. Kaufman promptly declared himself uninterested in running for the office in 2010, theoretically opening the door for a candidacy by Beau Biden upon his return. But, with a caretaker in the job, it remains a real possibility that outgoing Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr. (D) might seriously consider running in 2010, as might Rep. Michael N. Castle (R), who has long eyed a Senate spot.

Research editor Alice R. Crites contributed to this report.


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