Three Governors Face Possible Senate Picks

 

Barack Obama's selection of Joseph R. Biden Jr. as his running mate in November's presidential election has put a third governor on notice that he or she may be called upon to name a new U.S. senator once the next commander-in-chief is known.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) of Illinois and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) of Delaware would choose replacements in the Senate for Obama and Biden, respectively, if the Democrats claim the White House in the fall.

Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, another Democrat, would fill the Senate vacancy left by Republican candidate John McCain should he ascend to the presidency. Unlike Obama, McCain has not announced his running mate, but he is expected to do so before the Republican National Convention kicks off Sept. 1.

The three governors would choose replacements only to serve out the remainder of the senators' terms, or until a special election can be called.

The rare presence of three sitting senators in the same presidential election has touched off a frenzy of speculation in the candidates' home states about who their potential Senate substitutes might be. One thing, however, already appears certain: no governor's appointment is likely to alter the chamber's delicate balance of political power.

That's because Napolitano is required by state law to choose a Republican to replace McCain if he prevails. Arizona is one of only three states where the governor must choose a Senate replacement from the same political party that vacated the seat, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The other states are Hawaii and Wyoming .

In Illinois and Delaware , by contrast, Blagojevich and Minner can choose anyone they want to fill a vacant Senate seat and the two Democrats would be loath to look to the GOP, experts say.

That means only the voters - not a governor - will have a say in which party has the upper hand next year in the fiercely contested Senate, where Democrats and Republicans each hold 49 seats and where both parties are seeking a filibuster-proof majority of 60 votes that would allow them to dominate the legislative process. Nationally, 33 Senate seats are up for election in the fall; 21 are held by Republicans and 12 by Democrats.

Obama's decision to choose Biden as his running mate has caused many pundits to speculate that Minner would choose the vice presidential hopeful's son, Delaware Attorney General Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III, to replace him in the Senate. But that scenario has met with a complication: Beau Biden is a member of the Delaware Army National Guard and will leave Oct. 3 for a year-long deployment to Iraq . The younger Biden has said he plans to serve out the deployment.

Few other names have been seriously mentioned as a possible Senate replacement in Delaware since Obama tapped Biden as his running mate Aug. 23. But prominent Democrats who are widely seen to have a chance at Biden's seat include Secretary of State Harriet Smith Windsor or - if he loses his current campaign to succeed the term-limited Minner as governor - John C. Carney Jr., the state's lieutenant governor.

If the Democrats win in November, Minner and Biden are likely to have discussions over the best Senate substitute, said James Soles, the former chairman of the University of Delaware 's Department of Political Science and International Relations.

In Illinois, the parlor game over a possible Obama replacement has been clouded by the legal and political troubles surrounding Blagojevich, whose administration has been the subject of several investigations into alleged wrongdoing, ranging from kickback schemes to illegal hiring practices.

The scandals have caused immense political damage to the governor, plunging his approval rating to as low as 13 percent in some polls, alienating him from state Democrats and Republicans alike and making it difficult to assess where his loyalties lie with respect to a possible Senate appointment, said James D. Nowlan, senior fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois.

"People have such a hard time figuring out the governor that all we have is relatively wild speculation," Nowlan said.

Several Democrats holding statewide offices have been mentioned as potential replacements for Obama, including Attorney General Lisa Madigan, Secretary of State Jesse White and Comptroller Dan Hynes. Prominent members of the state's delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives also have received attention, including Reps. Jesse Jackson Jr., Bobby Rush and Rahm Emanuel.

The latest addition to the list of possible appointees is state Senate President Emil Jones, who abruptly announced this month that he will retire from the legislature in January, was a mentor to Obama when both were state lawmakers and has proven to be a rare ally of Blagojevich. Jones - like White, Jackson and Rush - is African-American, which could play a role, because Obama is the nation's only black senator.

There even is talk that Blagojevich could appoint himself to the Senate should Obama win, as a way of escaping the relentless pressure he has faced in Illinois . Alternately, some analysts say, he could appoint a Democrat who otherwise would run against him for governor in 2010, brightening his own prospects for re-election.

In Arizona, even though Napolitano's potential Senate choices would be limited to the GOP, state law allows the governor to name any Republican she sees fit, rather than choosing from a list of possibilities nominated by the state party (as happened last year in Wyoming ). That means she could choose a moderate who shares some of her views, rather than a staunch conservative with whom she would have little in common.

A spokeswoman for Napolitano, Jeanine L'Ecuyer, acknowledged that "everybody's talked about" the possibility that the governor may have to choose a replacement for McCain. But L'Ecuyer said it is premature to discuss the subject now. "There's nothing to do at this point," she said. "McCain has not resigned his seat."

That hasn't prevented the rumors from flying. Among the names being discussed among state Republicans are former state attorney general and McCain staffer Grant Woods, former congressman Jim Kolbe, former state representatives Chris Herstam and Deb Gullett and Tucson Mayor Robert E. Walkup, all considered moderate enough to win Napolitano's support.

One thing about Napolitano's potential choice already is certain, Arizona Republicans claim: the governor's own political ambitions will factor heavily into the equation. Republicans say Napolitano probably is considering running for the U.S. Senate when her gubernatorial term expires in 2010; if McCain wins in November, she may seek to appoint a "placeholder" Republican who is interested only in serving the final two years of his term, so she would have the advantage of contesting an open seat.

"I don't think it's any secret that Governor Napolitano certainly doesn't see her last role in office as being governor of the state," said Camilla Strongin, a spokeswoman for the state GOP. Strongin noted that Napolitano has been mentioned as a potential cabinet officer in an Obama administration, should the Illinois senator win in November.

 
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