Friday, January 30, 2009

Statewide Officials Not Always the Senate Recruits They’re Cracked Up to Be

By Nathan L. Gonzales

Democrats cheered when Colorado Attorney General John Suthers (R) announced he would not challenge newly appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D) in 2010. And Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch (D) decided not to take on Sen. Judd Gregg (R) next year. Both were considered strong potential challengers because they are popular statewide officeholders. But looking back over the past four cycles, holding statewide office by no means equals a guaranteed ticket to the U.S. Senate.

There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction by partisan activists to immediately elevate current or former statewide officeholders into the top tier of potential candidates, even though candidates with that profile have had mixed success in recent elections.

Indeed, there are plenty of factors that go into a candidate’s ultimate success — including the partisan leanings of the state, the nature of the cycle (which also impacts a candidate’s willingness to run) and the strength of the incumbent or opponent, among other factors. But recent history shows that there is no correlation between Senate success and holding statewide office.

Only seven of the 39 Senators who have been elected over the past four cycles were sitting statewide officials. Meanwhile, over the same time period, seven sitting statewide officials lost bids for Senate.

Former statewide officials make up only eight of the 39 new Senators since 2002, while three former statewide officeholders lost general election bids over the same time period.

This means that of the Senators elected over the past four cycles, less than half were either sitting or former statewide officeholders.

This is encouraging news for the parties when they are recruiting, but it also means their seats aren’t safe just because a statewide candidate on the other side of the aisle decides not to run.

Of the 10 freshman Senators elected in 2008, Idaho Lt. Gov. James Risch (R) was the only sitting statewide officeholder to make it to the Senate. State Treasurer John Kennedy (R) lost his race in Louisiana.

Five candidates were former statewide officeholders: now-Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Mark Warner (D-Va.) and Mike Johanns (R-Neb.), as well as former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) who lost his bid.

In 2006, at-large Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) were elected to the Senate, the only statewide officials in their class. Lt. Gov. Michael Steele (R) lost his bid in Maryland.

That same year Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) was a former statewide official who ran while out of office. The rest of his class included two sitting House Members, a mayor, a county attorney, a state Senator and a war hero who had never held elected office.

In 2004, only one of the nine new Senators was elected while holding statewide office: Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar (D). On the flip side, Missouri state Treasurer Nancy Farmer (D) and South Carolina Education Superintendent Inez Tenenbaum (D) were unsuccessful in their Senate bids.

That class of Senators included four sitting Members of Congress (and one former Member), former Cabinet secretary Mel Martinez (Fla.), who had never held statewide office and Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama (D). Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles (D) came up short, but former Rep. John Thune (R), who previously represented an at-large seat, won in South Dakota.

And back in 2002, Arkansas Attorney General Mark Pryor (D) and Texas Attorney General John Cornyn (R) were the only statewide elected official out of the 10 new Senators. Meanwhile, three statewide officials lost, including Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury (D), Louisiana Elections Commissioner Suzanne Haik Terrell (R) and Thune, who won two years later.

[This story was updated on 2/3/09 to reflect the fact that Claire McCaskill was the sitting state auditor when she was elected to the Senate.]

This story first appeared on on January 28, 2009. 2009 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.