As Obama Recruits, the Senate Scramble Is Just Beginning

Officially, Valerie Jarrett appeared on this morning’s “Meet the Press” to discuss Barack Obama’s transition effort, which she is helping

Officially, Valerie Jarrett appeared on this morning’s “Meet the Press” to discuss Barack Obama’s transition effort, which she is helping to lead. But hours later, her turn in the national spotlight took on added significance, with the news that Obama apparently wants Jarrett to succeed him in the United States Senate. In hindsight, she might have been auditioning.

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Whether Jarrett, a Chicago lawyer and civic leader who has been closely involved in Obama’s entire political career, ends up being elevated to the Senate isn’t, of course, the president-elect’s call. The power of appointment belongs to Illinois’ Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich. But, presumably, Obama’s recommendation will go a long way.

What’s more interesting about the Jarrett speculation, however, is that it’s part of a trend. Even though elections for the Senate were held last Tuesday, the composition of the body is as much in flux now as it was at the height of the campaign season – and not just because the winners haven’t yet been declared in Georgia and Minnesota. For a variety of reasons, as many as a half-dozen Senate seats might change hands in the next few months, many of them, like Obama’s, filled by a gubernatorial appointment.

One reason is simple: Obama and Joe Biden, the first national ticket comprised of two sitting senators to win since John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in 1960, both must give up their seats sometime between now and the January 20 inauguration.

The replacement process is relatively straightforward in both states, where Democratic governors will presumably appoint Democratic senators who will fill each seat at least through the 2010 election. (Biden’s seat won’t expire until 2014, so the 2010 race in Delaware will be for the final four years of his term; Obama’s seat expires in 2010 anyway, so that race will be for a full six-year term.)

But the jockeying in both states has been interesting. In Illinois, Jesse Jackson Jr., a congressman from Chicago since 1996, has been visible and vocal in his pursuit of Obama’s seat. He backed Obama early and, in one of the more revealing episodes of the ’08 campaign, loudly and swiftly excoriated his own father when Jesse Jackson Sr. was caught on tape criticizing Obama’s posture on racial issues. The younger Jackson’s response reeked of political positioning – an attempt to separate himself from his father’s baggage.

In Delaware, meanwhile, the name most commonly mentioned for Biden’s seat has long been Biden’s son, Beau, who was elected attorney general in 2006. Besides objections of dynastic grounds, the biggest problem with a Beau Biden appointment is that he is now deployed in Iraq (and will be well into next year) and already largely absent from his job as A.G. One solution that’s been bandied about: The appointment of a caretaker senator – like outgoing 73-year-old Governor Ruth Ann Minner – who would hold the seat until ’10, when Biden would be back in Delaware and able to run. (Even though Minner is now the governor, the expectation is that Governor-elect Jack Markell will actually make the appointment.)

There are other reasons that the Senate’s roster could be changed significantly in the days ahead.

In Alaska, Ted Stevens was re-elected against long odds last week, just days after being convicted in Washington, D.C. on federal corruption charges. If he persists, Stevens could face expulsion from the Senate, with even his fellow Republicans compelled for the sake of appearances to vote him out. Under that scenario, a special election would be triggered in Alaska. (The state used to allow governors to make the pick, but there was a loud outcry when, in 2002, Frank Murkowski left his Senate seat to become governor and, in his first act, appointed his daughter to replace him in Washington.) A special election in Alaska would immediately raise the question of Sarah Palin’s future: Would she seek the seat as a way of burnishing her resume in advance of a 2012 presidential run?

Then there’s Massachusetts, which has been represented by the same two senators since 1984 – while a long line of ambitious congressmen have grown old and gray waiting for a chance to move up. But now Ted Kennedy is battling an aggressive form of brain cancer, which has made him almost completely absent from Washington since May. Perhaps Kennedy will beat the odds, but his prognosis is grim. John Kerry, the state’s junior senator, is pushing for an appointment as Obama’s Secretary of State. There is no shortage of interest in that job, but Kerry was early in coming to the Obama bandwagon and was a busy and visible campaign surrogate throughout the fall.

Massachusetts, like Alaska, no longer allows its governor to appoint a senator. The law was changed in the summer of 2004, when Kerry was running for president and the state’s Democrats – who own veto-proof legislative majorities – decided they didn’t like the idea of Republican Governor Mitt Romney picking Kerry’s successor. Now, a special election must be called when a vacancy arises. This works out nicely for the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation, many of whom have long coveted one of their state’s Senate seats. With an off-year special election, they could take a risk-free run at their dreams, knowing that in defeat they can always go back to their cushy House seats.

Nor is Kerry the only senator in the mix for a Cabinet appointment. Rhode Island’s Jack Reed has been linked to Defense Department speculation all year. His seat would be filled by an appointment by the state’s Republican governor, Donald Carcieri; assuming Carciei could find another Republican in Rhode Island, this would reduce the Democrats’ Senate majority, no small consideration given how close the party now is to the magic 60-seat mark.

The significance of these kinds of political calculations can’t be overstated as Obama recruits his administration. The example of Bill Clinton, who plucked Lloyd Bentsen from the Senate to serve as his Treasury secretary in 1993, is instructive. Texas’ Democratic governor, Ann Richards, quickly appointed a Democratic replacement for him, Bob Krueger, but state law also called for a quick special election, in the spring of 1993. With Clinton’s approval ratings already in decline, the race attracted national attention – the first referendum on the new president. And when Kay Bailey Hutchison steamrolled over Krueger, it only added to the new administration’s headaches.

As Obama Recruits, the Senate Scramble Is Just Beginning