With Tim Johnson (Democrat, South Dakota) in critical condition after brain surgery, the Republican party is a heartbeat and one act of partisan cronyism away from regaining what the voters stripped it of in November’s election: Control of the United States Senate.
The state’s governor is a Republican, and among the many archaic anti-democratic elements of the US system of government is the rule that permits the governor of a state to appoint a replacement when a US Senator leaves office before the end of a term.
It is long past time to reform the mechanism for filling Senate vacancies. We should require a special election, just as is the case for vacant House seats. (The rule for the Senate is that the appointed replacement serves till the next general election and only then is there a special election. That would be 2008, and in this case the seat would have been up then anyway.) The governor’s nominee in the event Johnson cannot remain in office would require confirmation of the state legislature–controlled by the Republican party.
A Republican replacement would result in a 50-49-1 Senate. The one is, of course, independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, who has pledged to continue to caucus with the Democrats, despite defeating the Democratic nominee with an electoral coalition in 2006 that was overwhelmingly Republican and independent. Presumably, as was the case in Januaryâ€“May, 2001, if there were fifty Democrats (counting Lieberman) and fifty Republicans (with the appointed South Dakota replacement), the parties would evenly divide the committees and the agenda. But on any legislative matter or confirmation vote on which the GOP caucus was united, the Vice President’s tiebreaker–itself a vestige of bad institutional design–would tip the outcome in the Republicans’ favor.
I do not know if a Democrat would win a special election in South Dakota. Johnson won an extremely close reelection in 2002 (in an election in which a Libertarian had nearly six times the votes as the margin over the Republican) and the other Demcoratic Senator was defeated in 2004. However, 2006 was a very different year politically than in 2002 and 2004 (and particularly so in South Dakota!). Besides, it is the voters, and not partisan state officials, who should determine this critical (or any) seat.