Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What Happens When You've Got More Senators Than Representatives??? The Crazy, Confusing, and Convoluted Politics of Our Smallest States

Republicans got a boost yesterday when Delaware House member Mike Castle announced that he would seek the Senate seat vacated by Vice President Joe Biden. With Biden's departure, the seat has been temporarily filled by appointed Senator Ted Kaufman, who vowed not to seek election to the remainder of Biden's term. Castle is a politician of long standing and high popularity in the First State. Since 1966 he has served in the Delware House and Senate, as Lieutenant Governor and Governor, and as the state's sole House member since 1993. That's quite an impressive resume. While Delaware went overwhelmingly for Barack Obama last year and Democrats have been dominant in the state of late, Castle's candidacy immediately gives the Republicans an opportunity to chip into the Democrats' 60 seat caucus. On the Democratic side, all eyes are now on Attorney General Beau Biden (son of Joe) to see whether he enters the race to seek his dad's old seat.

Besides setting up a potential barn burner of a race, Castle's candidacy gives us a chance to explore the politics of those smallest of states--those with only a single House member. When I read about Castle's entrance, I got to thinking about the advantages of running for a higher office within the same constituency as the one you're leaving. When other House member's seek to move on to the Senate or Governor, they need to introduce themselves to hundreds of thousands of new voters--a daunting and expensive task. Furthermore, the partisanship of one's House district likely differs dramatically from the state as a whole. Candidates like Castle don't have to worry about this. Thus, these Senate candidates might find themselves running a redux of their previous House races. What I didn't know was whether or not this was truly the case. How often do House members from single district states move on to the Senate??? Let's take a look. What we find is a fascinating, yet complicated, tangle of politicians, offices, and campaigns.

There are two ways we might look at this phenomenon. First, we can look at the Senate delegations of those states with at-large House districts and see how many came from the House. There are currently seven states that have a single House member--Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. Aside from Kaufman, the placeholder in Delaware, that leaves 13 Senators. Of these, 6 have previous service as their state's House member: Tom Carper (DE); Max Baucus (MT); Byron Dorgan (ND); Tim Johnson (SD); John Thune (SD); and Bernie Sanders (VT). Of these, 4 moved to the Senate directly from the House. The exceptions are Tom Carper who served two terms as Delaware Governor between the House and the Senate and John Thune who took an interesting path between the two chambers. After serving three House terms, Thune decided to challenge incumbent Senator Tim Johnson in 2002. After narrowly losing that race, he reloaded and mounted an attack on the other state's Senator, Tom Daschle, and was successful in a narrowly decided contest just two years later. The Thune example is instructive in a couple of ways. First, these races in small states are oftentimes extremely close. Due to the fact that Senators (namely incumbents) running against a House challenger share the same constituency, many of the normal incumbency advantages disappear now that both candidates share them. Second, Thune's case shows us how these states tend to have a small cadre of politicians who always seem to run against each other--appearing and reappearing as different elections get contested over time (you can throw gubenatorial contests in here as well).

This second point can be seen further as we look at the next way to explore this phenomenon. Rather than looking at the Senate delegations and tracing their paths backwards, we can look at the House members from these states and see who tried to move up--and whether or not they were successful. Here things can get a little nutty, especially in the Dakotas. Rather than try and create a chart or spreadsheet to present the data here, its probably best to just go state by state. I've taken a look at each of these states over the past few decades. I'd also note that their single district status has changed at different times. Montana, for example, became a single member state after the 1990 census while North Dakota lost a seat after the 1970 census and South Dakota after 1980.

Alaska: Alaska is a simple case to explore in that there's been no movement. Alaska's lone House member, Republican Don Young has held his seat since 1973 and has not attempted any run for higher office.

Delaware: Going back to the mid-60's, Delaware has had five House members. As noted above, Mike Castle has held the seat since his election in 1992. Prior to him, now Senator Tom Carper (D) held the seat between 1983 and 1993 when he assumed the governorship. He became Senator upon the retirement of incumbent Republican William Roth. Before Carper the seat was held for three terms by Republican Thomas Evans who was defeated by Carper (interesting backstory here). From 1971 until 1977 Pete DuPont IV (R) was in office before vacating the seat to run for, and win, the governor's office. DuPont was elected upon the vacancy of the seat by William Roth who held it between 1967 and his movement to the Senate following the 1970 election. Got that??? Essentially the House, Governor, and Senate seats from the state acted as a game of musical chairs for a very small set of actors (Carper, Roth, DuPont, and now maybe Castle).

Montana: Montana is a little more easy to follow with not a whole lot of movement. The current House member, Republican Dennis Rehberg has held the seat since his election in 2000. Previous to Rehberg, Republican Rick Hill held the seat for two terms before retiring. It was during the term of Hill's predecessor, Democrat Pat Williams, that Montana switched from two to one House seats. Williams, first elected in 1978, retired in 1996 without seeking to move to the Senate. Williams was preceded in the then 1st District by now Senator Max Baucus who was first elected to the House in 1974. So Baucus fits the pattern of taking advantage of a House seat to move up to the Senate.

North Dakota: This is going to be a bit complicated. Since 1993 North Dakota's House seat has been held by Democrat Earl Pomeroy. Before Pomeroy, current Democratic Senator Byron Dorgan occupied the office beginning with his election in 1980. Dorgan won election to the Senate in 1992 upon the retirement of Democratic Senator Kent Conrad. Wait. Isn't Conrad currently the other North Dakota senator??? Yes he is and this is where things get weird. Conrad was elected to the Senate first in 1986 from the position of ND Tax Commissioner (a position also held by Dorgan earlier in his career!!!) and promised to serve only one term unless the country's trade and budget deficits were not reduced. With the fiscal situation not resolved, Conrad announced his retirement in 1992. Later that year, however, the state's other Senator (Dorgan's still in the House, remember) Quentin Burdick died suddenly leaving the seat vacant. Upon the entreaties of state Democrats, Conrad decided to run in the special election which he subsequently won. So Kent Conrad has been elected to both of North Dakota's Senate seats (but not its House seat). He and Dorgan essentially entered the Senate at the same time.

OK, where were we? Prior to Byron Dorgan, ND's House seat was held by Republican Mark Andrews, first elected in 1964. In 1980, he gave up the seat to run for, and win, the open Senate seat vacated by Milton Young. In 1986 Andrews was defeated by Conrad. If anyone can keep this convoluted bit of political history straight they win the Lifetime Achievement Award. The story of North Dakota, like Delaware, shows how a few politicians seem to continuously jockey for a limited number of offices.

South Dakota: A little less complicated than its northern neighbor, but not much so. The current SD rep. is Democrat Stephanie Herseth Sandlin who won the seat in a 2004 special election. That race was contested when her predecessor, Republican Bill Janklow (first elected in 2002 and a former Governor to boot) resigned upon being convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Janklow was elected when previous Rep. John Thune (see above) gave up the seat to run against, yet lose to, current Senator Tim Johnson. Remember, Thune came back in 2004 to knock off Tom Daschle (who we'll read more about in a second). Prior to Thune, the House seat was held by Tim Johnson, first elected in 1986. Johnson gave up the seat in '96 to run against, and ultimately beat, incumbent Senator Larry Pressler. Prior to Johnson, South Dakota's lone House member was??? That's right, Tom Daschle!!! Daschle vacated the seat in '86 to challenge and beat the other incumbent Senator James Abdnor. During Daschle's time in the House South Dakota lost its second House seat, which for two terms was held by----Larry Pressler until he moved to the Senate in 1979. That's four members--Pressler, Daschle, Johnson, and Thune--who've held both the House and Senate seats from the state and have run against and succeeded each other in various permutations.

Vermont: The current Vermonter in the House is Democrat Peter Welch, first elected in 2006. Welch's predecessor was current Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders moved to the Senate directly from the House, to which he was first elected in 1990. Sanders Senate seat was created by the retirement of Independent (and former Republican) James Jeffords. Jeffords himself had held the House seat from 1975 to 1988. The two year interval between Jeffords and Sanders was the House term of Republican Peter Smith, who Sanders knocked off in 1990.

Wyoming: Wyoming is now represented by freshman Republican Cynthia Lummis who took the spot of retiring Republican Barbara Cubin, first elected in 1994. Cubin's predecessor was Craig Thomas. Thomas, first elected to the House seat in 1990, gave up the seat to run for, and win, the Senate seat of retiring Republican Malcolm Wallop. Thomas captured the House seat when then Rep. Dick Cheney vacated it to become George H.W. Bush's Secretary of Defense. Prior to Cheney (first elected in 1978), Wyoming's seat was held by Republican Teno Roncalio, who retired making way for Cheney.

Thus, in only one of these states, Alaska, have we not seen a House member successfully parlay their incumbency into a Senate seat at some point. The only reason Alaska hasn't seen this happen, perhaps, is because of 1) the long incumbency of both its House member and one of its Senators, Ted Stevens (defeated last year); and 2) its strong Republicanism, ensuring little partisan competition for these coveted few spots. Everywhere else we've seen much more fluidity with a seemingly constant cast of characters moving around from office to office throughout their careers and finding themselves often opposing a set of "usual suspects." With small states offering only a limited number of opportunities for politicians to achieve their ambitions, things can get awfully crowded at the top.

Have you kept all of this straight???

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