The Aaron Harber Show

WRONG AGAIN: The Art of Choosing Replacements
December 21, 2008
By Aaron Harber

Part 1: The Press and Pundits Set the Wrong Stage

There is more than one Governor selecting a new U.S. Senator but Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich is getting all the headlines in the selection of Barack Obama's replacement. In Colorado, a politically "clean" state traditionally untainted by political scandal of any kind, Governor Bill Ritter gets to choose a replacement for Senator Ken Salazar who will become the nation's Secretary of the Interior.

While most of Colorado's pundits and political reporters argue the replacement for Senator Salazar to be chosen by Governor Ritter needs to be someone well-known, well-connected in Democratic circles, and capable of raising the millions likely to be needed for his or her 2010 election campaign, once again the criteria are too simplistic if not altogether wrong.

Part 2: The 2010 General Election

It is understandable if Ritter is looking towards 2010 because he is up for reelection and is certain to run. While he has not yet had the success he desired in key areas such as health care, K-12 education, higher education, transportation, and the state budget, and with the failure of both Amendment 59 and his severance tax proposal in the 2008 General Election, it is unlikely he will be able to make as much progress as he had hoped on any of these fronts by November 2, 2010. But that won't and shouldn't stop Ritter from trying.

Unfortunately, the deteriorating national Economy will whipsaw Colorado and tie Ritter's hands. This may allow him to make only marginal strides in the coming months. The Governor, however, recognizes this and is taking the actions he can to protect to protect Colorado as much as possible from the impending financial storm. He also is making whatever efforts he can to aid businesses and employees. The reality, however, is the economic downturn is a national force which dwarfs the ability of the State to overcome what likely will be a nasty one- or two-year period.

Ritter won't give up easily, however, and he will try to achieve significant gains in a number of areas. Nevertheless, the State's dismal financial condition is likely to make any progress difficult, at best. Only an infusion of federal dollars from a bailout plan will offer the financial resources needed to make major gains.

Part 3: Guiding Criteria

In this context, the Governor's choice for the next U.S. Senator from Colorado should be guided by specific criteria. To date, the Governor has not articulated any criteria except to say he wants "the person who can best serve all of the people of Colorado." Unless that means he wants to make a nonpartisan selection (and no one would believe this anyway), his single public criterion does not reveal much.

It would be understandable if Ritter selected someone with whom he personally is comfortable. The Governor and the new Senator will need to work closely together to help Colorado through what is likely to be one of the State's most difficult economic periods. And the two of them will be at the top of the ticket in 2010 so Ritter naturally will want someone who he believes will participate in a coordinated campaign which results in both candidates getting elected.

Yet Ritter knows he is highly likely to get reelected and probably does not need to worry on that score. Coloradans tend to reelect incumbent Governors by huge margins regardless of their performance in office. Ritter remains a very popular Governor and most voters see him as a hardworking public official. In addition, the potential challenger most likely to be able to defeat him --- former U.S. Senator Hank Brown --- already has made it clear he will not be the Republican candidate for Governor in 2010.

Part 4: No Coattails in Colorado

Ritter also knows coattails tend to not exist in Colorado because voters split their tickets in the State often at a rate as high as 80% (i.e., 4 out of 5 voters cast ballots which contain selections from both major parties). This means they make independent decisions on candidates, especially at the top of the ticket. Nevertheless, Ritter certainly wants a positive force on the ticket with him. Knowing today who that will be in two years, however, may be trickier than even the Governor realizes.

Part 5: The Art of Selecting a U.S. Senator

When one looks at the process to select a successor for U.S. Senator Ken Salazar, the reality is the criteria articulated in and by the political Press are not the most relevant ones.  Certainly being well-known is a plus but it will be more important what the new Senator does in the next two years.

Part 6: The Usual Criteria are Irrelevant

It is guaranteed that the person picked to be Colorado's junior Senator will be very well-known in just a matter of months.  Even if Governor Bill Ritter selected a relatively unknown person to go to Washington, his or her name identification across the State will quickly rise to levels competitive with Senator Mark Udall and the Governor himself so being well-known actually is a relatively inconsequential criterion.

Being well-connected in Democratic circles is not relevant because whoever is selected automatically will meet that qualification.  He or she will be seen as the nation's most vulnerable junior Senator.  The result will be the Senate leadership will give Colorado's new Senator key committee and other assignments.  The new President will get involved as well and will help make the new Senator a "star."  And don't forget the new Secretary of the Interior --- Ken Salazar himself --- who is highly likely to help Colorado's junior Senator maintain a high profile, especially given the relevance of Interior to so many issues in Colorado.

Part 7: Fundraising Reality

A third criterion which has been articulated also is insignificant despite its appeal on the surface.  It is the argument the person selected to be Colorado's next Senator should be a prodigious fundraiser.  There is no question that the $10 million which will be required for the 2010 campaign is a daunting task. 

The reality, however, is this contest will be a national race --- eerily identical in many respects to the 2008 race between Democratic Congressman Mark Udall and Republican former Congressman Bob Schaffer.  This means there will be plenty of money available to whomever the candidates are from both major parties.  Plus third-party organizations such as 527's and 501(c)(4)'s will be in full swing no matter who the contestants are.

Part 8: Any Senator Can Fundraise

Fundraising today is a function of the time spent by candidates calling lists they are given attending fundraisers, and meeting with key prospects and groups.  No matter who is selected to be the next U.S. Senator, that person will have the resources to raise the funds he or she needs to win.  Of course, an independently wealthy candidate offers additional advantages today --- as the recent congressional election of Jared Polis amply demonstrated.

Part 9: Differences Between 2008 and 2010 Races

What will be different in the 2010 Senate race compared to the 2008 Senate race is that Udall's win --- fueled in part by a flagging Economy, an unpopular War in Iraq, an even more unpopular Republican presidential administration, an Obama-energized electorate, and a superb candidate (Mark Udall) and campaign --- may not be quite as easy to replicate in 2010.

In 2010, voters will be aware Democrats control the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate, and the White House. Iraq will no longer be an issue because the Iraqis have already told us to leave and we have begun that process. George Bush will be a distant memory for many members of the electorate. And the Obama Bailout in 2009 will have dwarfed what Bush did in 2008 --- making the new President and Democrats appear more responsible for the state of the Economy than they likely deserve. It likely will be on these issues the 2010 election will be decided.

So, if the popular opinions about what Ritter's selection criteria should be are wrong and he believes economic and political conditions in 2010 will be dramatically different than conditions today in 2008, what should his selection criteria be for Colorado's next U.S. Senator?

Part 10: Extraordinary Times Require Extraordinary Decisions

While Governor Bill Ritter may initially look to selecting a replacement for Senator Ken Salazar who is well-known, well-connected, and a good fundraiser, it is likely these factors will not be as important in the 2010 General Election as most pundits think.

Part 11: What Can a Freshman Senator Do?

The reason is the nation is facing a financial crisis of extraordinary proportion.  This makes the time we are in different from that of the past few decades.  With this in mind, those looking forward to the 2010 General Election would be wise to consider what might happen over the next two years and what role Colorado's new Senator could play.  And, as a junior Senator who will have less seniority than almost all but one or two of his or her 100 colleagues, what will Ken Salazar's successor truly be able to do?

For these reasons, most traditional political factors have become less relevant.  If Ritter chooses a more traditional path, he may find his selection actually becomes a liability rather than an asset as the economic crisis unfolds.

Part 12: Can Bill Ritter be Bold?

As David Brooks of the New York Times has argued, allowing a Governor to select the successor to those who leave the Senate during their terms is an opportunity to be creative and bold. Most Governors, Brooks claims, overlook this special opportunity and make a selection from a narrow range of predictable candidates. And this tends to be reinforced by the Press, whose lazy members tend to offer lists with little research or basis. They simply regurgitate the names of those of politicians already well-known to the reporters and pundits. The results often end up being uninspiring.

Certainly, lesser-known candidates can mitigate any negatives via accomplishment. And in the next two years, Colorado's junior Senator will have plenty of opportunity to achieve goals not typically reached by new members of the upper chamber.

Part 13: There is More Time Than Most Realize

The truth is there is much time to establish a record prior to the 2010 election and that record will be a key part of the 2010 campaign.  It is likely the new Senator's accomplishments and failures will be far more important than any other factor when voters go to the polls.

Ken Salazar illustrated this with his freshman participation in the bipartisan Gang of 14 (whose numbers actually varied).  By being part of this fraction of the Senate, he was involved in many key decisions as he stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the Senate's most senior and best-known members. 

Part 14: A Republican Model for a Colorado Democrat

On the Republican side, Tennessee's junior Senator, Bob Corker, effectively took on a leadership role in the automobile industry bailout simply due to the vacuum of knowledge and experience which exists in the Senate.  If the right person is selected, Colorado's next Senator could easily rise to national prominence in a matter of weeks rather than years, especially given an even greater vacuum of financial and business expertise on the Democratic side of the aisle.

Part 15: Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

It is this type of creative approach which is needed today. And for Ritter's own self-interest, having such a person succeed Salazar ultimately would benefit the State and Ritter's own reelection because such a person will thrive in what is becoming a very gloomy political environment. Ritter should seek out that rare person who can succeed in a difficult environment.

As 2010 nears, if the Economy is in tatters, Democrats will be the ones who will be blamed. There may be fewer Democratic survivors in 2010 than are forecast right now. Today Democrats understandably are optimistic. They control the nation's agenda and believe they will right America's economic ship. But the challenge may be far greater than many of these officials realize. If 2009 and 2010 are financially disastrous years for the country, the blame will be laid at the feet of the Democratic Party.

Part 16: Making a Choice for the Nation's Future

Governor Bill Ritter's choice of a successor to Ken Salazar should be someone who understands Economics, has academic training in that field, knows the financial world firsthand, and has significant business experience. Criteria such as connections, celebrity, and fundraising are almost meaningless for this position because all of those will come automatically to whomever is appointed. What will not come are the skills necessary to make a difference.

Part 17: Colorado is a Federal Loser

While Ritter certainly wants a Senator who will help bring federal resources to Colorado, he also should want someone who can be a major player as the multi-trillion dollar bailout process continues. If Colorado, with a population of 5 million people out of a national population of 305 million (1.6%) were to get a proportional share of the bailout, the State would receive $14 billion.

Colorado's federal officeholders, however, have not succeeded in getting the State anywhere near its proportion of federal expenditures and, as a result, Colorado serves as a "donor state" with its taxpayers essentially sending more federal funds to other states than it receives. Colorado's next Senator needs to be someone who has the capacity to improve greatly on the job done by both past and current federal officials. Ritter knows that, without a significant infusion of federal dollars, the State is likely to be mired in an even worse recession --- one which could last several years.

Part 18: Colorado's Senator Can Correct Bailout Failures

What Colorado's next Senator should also do is bring the expertise necessary to improve the bailouts and the deals made by the new Administration.  As the Bush bailout demonstrated, most government officials know terribly little about business or the structure of investment deals made in the private sector. 

One consequence was the Democratic-controlled Congress and the Republican-controlled White House gave away hundreds of billions of dollars and, with the help of the Federal Reserve, pledged trillions more --- all without (1) the reasonable terms prudent businesspersons normally would require and (2) the regulatory structures needed to avoid abuses. 

The result has been story after story of how taxpayer dollars were misused (albeit legally) and how taxpayer dollars were used in deals which made little business sense.  Whether it is bailout recipient companies paying year-end bonuses or structuring outrageous retention deals, both Democrats and Republicans grossly failed in their obligations to taxpayers.  These actions were irresponsible and certainly will be a focus of the 2010 campaign.  Having these problems addressed and resolved in 2009 will be critical to the re-election of incumbents --- most of whom are Democrats today.

Part 19: A Win/Win/Win For Ritter, Colorado, and the Nation

By being bold and by not traveling the typical path trod by those before him, Bill Ritter has the opportunity to aid the entire nation, make a real contribution, and help his own reelection.  He can do this by appointing the right person to succeed Ken Salazar --- and it likely is not a name on the list of most-publicized candidates. 

The question is whether or not he has the courage to truly think outside the political box he is in and make a selection not predicted by those around him?  Ironically, by making the boldest of choices, Ritter not only "does the right thing" but ultimately helps his own political future as well.

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