Why Paterson Can Choose Exactly as He Pleases

That David Paterson would take his time in picking Hillary Clinton’s Senate successor is understandable. It’s a significant decision that will affect the state and country on important policy matters and that will have ramifications for the political pecking order in New York.

But from his own political standpoint, there’s really no way for him to get this one wrong.

Senate appointments aren’t that uncommon. Since the 17th Amendment, which mandates the popular election of U.S. senators, was enacted in 1913, 140 Senate vacancies have been filled via gubernatorial appointment, a number that will rise by four three once the current openings in New York, Illinois, Delaware and Colorado are officially filled. Many of these appointees (like, for instance, Minnesota’s Dean Barkley in late 2002) only served for a few weeks or months, but others (like former majority leader George Mitchell) went on to long and decorated careers in the upper chamber.

Popular or not, though, these appointed senators generally have had one thing in common: they haven’t had much of an impact, positive or negative, on the political fortunes of the governor who appointed them.

This is worth keeping in mind as Paterson makes up his mind and, inevitably, alienates a host of powerful politicians, interest groups, activists and opinion-shapers. Will he anger Hillary Clinton’s loyalists? How about women’s groups in general? Or the Cuomo family and their allies? Or someone upstate? For the media, the story is irresistible: interim governor desperately trying to win full term in 2010 forced to say no to potentially vindictive forces in his own party.

There’s also the matter of the public’s reaction to the appointment, and to the appointee’s subsequent performance in office. If Paterson gives the seat to someone who proves an underwhelming senator, won’t the public remember that when Paterson faces them in two years?

All of this makes for interesting conversation, but history tells us Paterson won’t pay a price for his choice, pretty much no matter what.

A good example came in Kansas back in 1996, when Bill Graves, a Republican governor, was tasked with anointing Bob Dole’s Senate successor. He chose his own lieutenant governor, Sheila Frahm, a moderate Republican loathed by the not-insignificant conservative wing of the state G.O.P. Graves, first elected in 1994, was already on shaky terms with the right and, with his re-election campaign two years away, had faced pressure to use the Senate pick to mollify conservatives – and to shore up his own standing in the party.

Predictably, the right revolted against the selection of Frahm, who was forced to run almost immediately upon taking office. (Dole, in a gesture meant to jump-start his presidential campaign, had resigned his seat in May; the November election was for the final two years of his unexpired term.) Sam Brownback, a very ambitious and very conservative congressman, jumped into the race and challenged Frahm in the G.O.P. primary.

When Brownback trounced Frahm (and went on to defeat Democrat Jill Docking in November), some saw it as a warning shot aimed at Graves. But it wasn’t: Opposed by a conservative challenger in the 1998 gubernatorial primary, Graves won with 73 percent of the vote. And in November ’98, he won a second term by one of the widest margins in Kansas history. The name Sheila Frahm was on no one’s mind.

This can cut both ways. Just as Senate appointments that don’t go over well with the public tend not to harm governors, those that are well-received don’t usually help them much.

Take the case of Roy Barnes, the last Democrat to serve as Georgia’s governor. Elected in 1998, he was forced to pick a senator in the summer of 2000, when Republican Paul Coverdell dies unexpectedly. Barnes chose Zell Miller, the Democrat who had preceded him as governor and transitioned into semi-retirement after giving up the office.

At the time, Miller was regarded as an elder statesman of Georgia politics, widely respected by members of both parties. Barnes’ decision was universally praised and when he faced the voters in November 2000, Miller won in a rout. Once in Washington, Miller began moving to the right, aligning with Republicans on key issues and becoming a pariah in the national Democratic Party (and a hero to Republicans). But this was a gradual process. When Barnes ran for re-election in 2002, Miller was still a unifying force in Georgia. But his support for Barnes mattered for nothing, and Barnes was defeated by Republican Sonny Perdue.

To be fair, there are some governors have managed to shoot themselves in the foot with Senate appointments. Rod Blagojevich, now accused of putting the appointment out to bid in Illinois, is probably the best example of this. There was also Frank Murkowski in Alaska, who ignored common sense and, in his first act as Alaska’a governor in 2003, appointed his daughter Lisa to the Senate seat he had just vacated. Alaskans never forgave him for such flagrant nepotism, a key ingredient in his dismal third place finish in the 2006 G.O.P. primary (which was won by none other than Sarah Palin).

But those are extreme cases. Chances are that the appointment process in New York isn’t going to end with Paterson in federal custody. (Nor is it likely that he’ll give the job to a family member.) Come 2010, it’s far more likely that voters will be thinking about Paterson’s decision to tax soda than his choice for a Senate seat. Why Paterson Can Choose Exactly as He Pleases