GOP Eyes Seats of Appointed Senators

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The confusion and controversy surrounding the recent appointments of four Democratic senators has come with a potential twist -- it could complicate the party's efforts to solidify its majority in the Senate.

New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, who was sworn in yesterday to fill the seat vacated by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, became the third person named to the Senate in the past month who could face difficulty winning reelection next year.

Republicans are already eyeing strong challenges to Sens. Roland W. Burris (Ill.) and Michael F. Bennet (Colo.), both selected by their states' governors over others seen as stronger contenders for statewide office.

New York political consultant Dan Gerstein said the appointments were made for a variety of reasons, but political appeal "was not the central consideration with three of the four."

He said Gillibrand could be a strong candidate to retain the seat in 2010, but he was not sure if that was true of Burris or Bennet. Newly appointed Sen. Edward E. "Ted" Kaufman, named to fill Vice President Biden's Delaware seat, has said he will not run for the seat and is generally viewed as a placeholder until Biden's son Beau can run.

Although all four states went to Barack Obama in the presidential election, Brian Walsh, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, said "there is no question that these recent appointments have created unexpected opportunities in Illinois and New York, where Democratic chaos undoubtedly alienated independent voters."

The appointments followed the election of Obama and Biden and the departures of Clinton and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a series of decisions that drew various levels of criticism and prompted a backlash against laws giving governors sole power to fill Senate vacancies.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) vowed to introduce a constitutional amendment this week requiring vacant Senate seats to be filled by special elections, as the House requires.

Feingold, who chairs the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on the Constitution, said he will hold hearings on the issue.

"The vacancies in Illinois and New York have made for riveting political theater, but lost in the seemingly endless string of news conferences and surprise revelations is the basic fact that the citizens of these states have had no say in who should represent them in the Senate," Feingold wrote as he touted the proposal on the liberal blog Daily Kos. "The same is true of the recent selections in Delaware and Colorado."

Passage of a constitutional amendment requires the backing of two-thirds of the members of each house of Congress and three-fourths of the states, and it is unclear whether the measure would gain enough popular support. Only Massachusetts, Oregon and Wisconsin currently require elections after senators step down, according to Feingold's office.

Feingold wrote that his proposal "is not simply a response to these latest cases," but said they "have simply confirmed my longstanding view that Senate appointments by state governors are an unfortunate relic of the time when state legislatures elected U.S. Senators."

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