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Congressional Seats Go Unexpectedly Up for Grabs Soon After 2012 Election

December 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Death, resignation and high-profile jobs have resulted in an unusual number of newly competitive Senate openings. Roll Call's Shira Toeplitz and NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni walk through with Gwen Ifill the political cause and effect of congressional vacancies in Massachusetts, Hawaii and South Carolina.

GWEN IFILL: Death, resignation, and high-profile new jobs have results in an unusual number of newly competitive Senate openings. President Obama set one prominent chain in motion last week when he nominated Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Here to walk us through the political cause and effect in three states are NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni and Shira Toeplitz of Roll Call.

Christina, we heard today that one of the Kennedy heirs, Ted Kennedy Jr., in fact, decided not to run for the seat in Massachusetts. What’s happening there?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, there’s a lot of interesting dynamics at play.            

And really whenever a Kennedy decides to run in Massachusetts, you sort of thinks that clears the field. And so when he said he wanted to stay in Connecticut, potentially run for something there one day…

GWEN IFILL: Which is where he lives.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Exactly — that this opens up the field for the Democrats in a big way.

But really where everybody is paying attention right now is the Republican side. Senator Scott Brown just lost his seat, very high-profile race in 2012 to Elizabeth Warren. Should he choose to run for the special election, try to repeat his special election victory in 2010, to be able to catch Democrats by surprise, perhaps a lower turnout election, that could be his seat.

But he may not run. There are lot of different things at play there. He has options later down the line. He could always run for governor at some point. So, if he doesn’t run, then the Republicans will sort of start to step up.

GWEN IFILL: It’s interesting that Elizabeth Warren is about to be the senior senator from Massachusetts before she’s even sworn in.

Shira, there’s also dominoes falling in the House. There are three members, Massachusetts members of the House, who are all eying this seat.

SHIRA TOEPLITZ, Roll Call: Yes, absolutely.

There are three members, some of whom have been there for decades and have been eying this Senate seat and have been looking at this one for a long time. It would be very interesting if all three of them ran in the special election. But that’s not necessarily a good thing for Democrats.

A divided primary would be expensive and probably damaging in the long run, especially if they’re going up against Scott Brown in the general election.

GWEN IFILL: Who are they?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: You have Edward Markey, Stephen Lynch, and Mike Capuano.

GWEN IFILL: And they — especially Edward Markey has been there and is quite senior, so they would have to give up a House seat, a safe House seat, in order to get this.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, it’s a special election. So, they wouldn’t have to give up their House seat, unless Deval Patrick appointed them to the seat in the meantime, which they’re unlikely to want that appointment because it would mean they would have to give up their House seat, even though it would give them a head-start on the Senate election.


Let’s move to another state and Hawaii. Very dramatically, last week, Senator Daniel Inouye died. And in a letter written to the governor, who gets decide who picks his seat, he actually stated his preference about who he wants to succeed him.


There are a lot of interesting elements with this. And one thing, it actually is very similar to what happened when Teddy Kennedy passed away in Massachusetts. In fall 2009 — or actually in summer 2009, he sent letter to Deval Patrick saying basically that he really wanted them to change the law in Massachusetts so that somebody would be able to fill that seat during the critical time when they were debating health care reform.

And then somebody would run for the special election. Well, in Hawaii, basically, what Daniel Inouye said was, I really want someone to be able to fill my seat. And I really hope that is Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who has not been there very long. He’s very close to her. He said that he felt that she would represent him with fervor, represent the state with fervor and sort of be in his own mold.

And he said he respectfully requested that. What is interesting about this is Gov. Abercrombie, a former member of Congress himself, didn’t release that letter. The senator’s — the late senator’s office is the one who released that letter. There’s some political pressure going on and it’s essentially as they’re having this fiscal cliff negotiation, so that is why it mirrors 2009.

GWEN IFILL: Gov. Abercrombie, Shira, is it a slam-dunk that Colleen Hanabusa, who was on the dying man’s lips practically, gets this job or are other people still trying to figure a way in?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Well, what’s going to happen this week is the Hawaii Democratic State Central Committee is going to meet.

And they’re going to give, according to state law, the governor three names of people who he could appoint to the seat. As long as Colleen Hanabusa makes that list — and it is looking very, very likely that she will — the governor will most likely appoint her. It would be very difficult for the governor to ignore such a legend as Daniel Inouye’s last and final wish to appoint this woman to his seat.

GWEN IFILL: And the other state we want to talk about — this has nothing to do with tragic loss or with a dramatic promotion. This is just old-fashioned politics.

In South Carolina, Christina, Jim DeMint decided to quit. And now he’s turned over the seat. The governor there, Gov. Haley, has to decided to appoint Tim Scott, the congressman.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Yes, which is very interesting, first African-American senator to represent the state for South Carolina.

And his seat, he will vacate that as early as January 2. And that would open up his House seat, which is whole other story entirely. But what is so fascinating about this is you will have full election for that seat in 2014. Well, also in 2014, Senator Lindsey Graham is up for reelection. And we don’t know for sure if he’s actually going to run for reelection, but conservatives have been agitating to challenge him in a primary for a long time.

They don’t view him as conservative enough, particularly compared with Jim DeMint, who was considered this very, very conservative senator who was all in favor of conservative primaries getting the more moderate Republicans out of there. This is going to be two very interesting, very competitive races in a state that’s not necessarily very competitive in the national landscape.

GWEN IFILL: Shira, who wants their jobs? Who wants Lindsey Graham’s job and who wants Tim Scott’s job?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: Well, now that Tim Scott has been appointed to the seat, it’s obviously very early to tell, but I don’t think he will get as much as any kind of primary challenge.

He’s very — he’s pretty well regarded among conservatives in the Palmetto State. Lindsey Graham, on the other hand, there were several people, maybe someone in the delegation, a state senator perhaps, who might challenge him in the primary. Still up in the air, but I would be very surprised if he didn’t get a challenge of some sort in the primary next year.

GWEN IFILL: In general, do these kinds of races, are these watched closely for fund-raising purposes, for ambition purposes, or are they just all unto themselves?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: No, all of the above, Gwen, actually.

You have got — a lot of money can be raised very quickly in a short period of time. But also there’s a lot of national groups that get their interests all agitated for it. And in addition to, it’s usually a shorter time frame, so people aren’t running for a year, a year-and-a-half. They can run at a compressed pace. And there’s lower turnout, so you actually can spend less money to influence more voters.

GWEN IFILL: How unusual is it, Shira, to have these special elections? Are we just overreacting because it seems like so many happened so quickly?

SHIRA TOEPLITZ: It’s fairly unusual to have so many so quickly right after another election ends.

But, remember, we dealt with some of this right after 2008, when President Obama was going to the Senate, a lot to appoint people to his Cabinet. We were dealing with a lot of the fallout then as well. Sometimes I guess it happens when the president switching terms. But it’s very rare to have this much political activity so soon after November 2012.

GWEN IFILL: Shira Toeplitz and Christina Bellantoni, thank you both very much.


GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow, we will talk with Christina and Shira about the shifting political landscape in Illinois, South Carolina again, and New Jersey.