Sam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.
Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.
As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.
In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.
The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.
One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930’s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940’s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.
Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.
Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.
Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.
Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.
Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.
If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.