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Spring Training and Senatorial Appointments

Donald Ritchie, author of Reporting from Washington: The History of the Washington Press Corps, Our Constitution, and The Congress of the United States: A Student Companion, looks at the connection between spring training rookies and Senatorial appointees. Ritchie, who has been Associate Historian of the United States Senate for more than three decades, reveals that both groups meet with limited success.

Baseball fans often migrate to watch spring training in Florida’s Grapefruit League and Arizona’s Cactus League. Sunny afternoon games offer them a chance to watch favorite players at close range, and also introduce them to the rookies and wannabes trying hard to make the team–the high numbers on their uniforms indicating that they likely will be heading to the minor leagues for more seasoning. Some may get called up to the majors, but the bulk won’t make it. This winnowing process bears some relationship to another group of rookies much in the news this spring: appointed U.S. senators.

Last year’s election of two sitting senators as president and vice president (the first since 1960) opened vacancies in the Senate from Illinois and Delaware, while the appointment of two more senators to the cabinet (the most since 1933) opened seats from New York and Colorado. The coincidence of four appointments at the start of a Congress is unusual, but sets no record. There were thirteen appointments to the Senate during the 79th Congress, stretched out over the two-year period from 1945 to 1946 rather than bunched together at the beginning.

No one has ever been appointed to the House, where special elections are held in each district to fill vacancies. Statewide elections are more costly, however, so most states have authorized their governors to make appointments. This was permitted by the 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, which transferred the right to elect senators from the state legislatures to the voters. Since then, governors have appointed 185 senators. Of these, 65 were benchwarmers who chose not to stand for election. Of those who ran, the results split almost evenly: 60 won election; 56 were defeated.

These stats show that incumbency is no sure ticket to success. JFK’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, won the Democratic nomination for senator from California in 1964. When the retiring senator died that summer, the governor appointed Salinger as the replacement. He went off to Washington while his opponent stayed behind campaigning full time. Despite the Democratic landslide that year, Salinger lost.

Like baseball rookies, appointed senators have to hustle hard to build reputations among the voters back home as well as among their colleagues in the Senate. The great majority of their names are now obscure, even for political junkies, but the record book also registers some notably successful careers. Charles McNary, appointed twice in 1917 and 1918, went on to become Republican minority leader during the New Deal and run for vice president in 1940. Another Republican appointee, Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, emerged as the leading proponent of bipartisan foreign policy at the start of the Cold War. Sam Ervin, a Democrat appointed from North Carolina in 1954, twenty years later chaired the Watergate investigation. Walter Mondale, appointed to the Minnesota seat vacated by Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1964 himself became vice president under Jimmy Carter and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1984. And George Mitchell, appointed from Maine in 1980, went on to serve as Democratic majority leader and is now special presidential envoy for Middle East Peace.

Statistically, the toughest category is that of governors who resign in order to have themselves appointed to fill Senate vacancies. Voters have rejected this tactic eight out of the nine it has been tried since direct election. The sole exception was Kentucky’s Albert B. “Happy” Chandler, who stepped down as governor to be appointed to the Senate in 1939, and won election in 1940. He later resigned from the Senate in 1945 to become–what else?–Commissioner of Baseball.

Recent Comments

  1. RestoreFederalism

    What really changed with the 17th was not just the method of selection (legislative appointment gave way to popular democracy), but who a senator represents. The 17th did violence to the fundamental principle of “separation of powers” by abolishing the representation of one power (the sovereign state governments) and doubling the representation of another (the people). The exponential growth in the cost and scope of the national government is a direct result of this imbalance. After all, with “the people’s will” so heavily represented, what is left that can provide a proper check? The Framers valued democracy, but they understood that it had practical and philosophical limits that had to be countered by some other force (the state governments). Without that, democracy crushes under its own weight, as we are seeing today.


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