Resignations, appointments, and the 2018 U.S. Senate map

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By Tim Lynch

Senators Tina Smith (D-MN) and Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-MS) have more in common than a surname. They are the two most junior senators and both entered the Senate via appointment following the resignation of their predecessor. Further, each of their appointments marked milestones in the number of women serving in the U.S. Senate simultaneously. In fact, Hyde-Smith became the first woman to represent Mississippi in Congress, leaving Vermont as the only state that has not yet sent a woman to Congress. While the senators have diverged in many ways since joining the chamber, both are attempting to turn their appointment into election this fall.

Since they enjoy only quasi-incumbent status, assessing the electoral prospects for Smith and Hyde-Smith is challenging. The partisan status of the Minnesota seat is in greater doubt than the Mississippi seat, but neither senator is assured of winning the balance of the term. In fact, the experience of Luther Strange in neighboring Alabama should serve as a cautionary tale for Hyde-Smith and the Mississippi GOP. Additionally, these unexpected races inject further uncertainty into models of the partisan balance of the upper chamber following the 2018 midterm elections. While models of the Senate’s partisan breakdown require estimates of what is likely to happen in each race, they focus much less on the individuals running. This post lays out the rationale behind exploring the fates of Senate appointees and analyzes the likelihood of Sen. Smith converting her appointment into election. 

Modeling the Electoral Fate of Senate Appointees

While there has been much speculation over the electoral fate of Sens. Donnelly, Heitkamp, Heller, Manchin, McCaskill, Nelson, and Tester, and the open seats in Arizona and Tennessee, relatively little attention has been paid to Smith and Hyde-Smith. This is curious given the fact that Senate appointees have traditionally been among the most vulnerable incumbents. While appointees don’t perform as well as elected incumbents, research that I have conducted on the electoral fate of U.S. Senate appointees helps to illuminate the electoral value of appointments.

Before proceeding to the findings on Sen. Smith, it is necessary to explain how they were derived. I created models that rely on data from all Senate appointments made between the adoption of the 17th Amendment (1913) through 2017. Each stage of the electoral process -- choosing to run, garnering nomination, and winning a general election -- is assessed to generate estimates of the likelihood of converting the appointment into election. A full exploration of the factors that drive the electoral prospects for appointees can be found here. Since Smith has committed to run, the analysis presented here will focus on the final two stages of the electoral process. Given the time span covered by the data, some factors, like polling, presidential approval, and candidate spending that are used in evaluating the electoral prospects of most incumbents, are not available here. Instead the models focus on the personal attributes of appointees and the fundamentals of the political environment surrounding the election. (Note: These models include all factors from my “Chasing Fools” working paper except candidate gender. Gender is excluded because it had a strong negative impact on women who competed in earlier eras, but has demonstrated little influence among more recent appointees.)

Senator Tina Smith

Senator Smith was appointed to the vacancy created by Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) resignation following revelations of sexual misconduct. While Franken announced his intention to resign in early December, Gov. Mark Dayton (D-MN) was unable to formally appoint Smith, who was serving as lieutenant governor, until January. Franken’s resignation was controversial in some quarters of the Democratic Party because President Trump continued to serve despite numerous allegations and revelations of sexual misconduct. It was also worrisome because the election to fill the seat created another potentially competitive Senate race on a map that is not favorable to the Democrats. The appointment initially heightened concerns over the ability of the Democratic Party to hold the seat, as speculation raged over whether or not Dayton would appoint a senator who would be a candidate for the remainder of the term. However, Smith’s immediate commitment to run for the seat has calmed some of those fears.

Smith easily received the Democratic-Farmer Labor (DFL) endorsement for the nomination at the June convention. However, she is being challenged by five candidates, including frequent Trump critic and former Bush Administration ethics lawyer Richard Painter, in the August primary. Since Smith’s nomination is not a foregone conclusion, it is essential to model the nomination stage of the process. Based on the experiences of past appointees who have sought nominations, Smith has an 89% chance of being nominated.

Since Smith is widely expected to win the primary in both popular accounts and in my model, it is important to explore how she is expected to fare in the general election. While three Republicans are facing off in the primary, State Senator Karin Housley (R-MN) is the strong favorite to be nominated. Since the elective office experience of a general election opponent is a factor in the election outcome, this analysis explores how Smith is expected to perform if Housley is her general election opponent. Based on the experiences of past appointees who have competed in contested general elections, Smith has an 80% chance of winning the general election, if she is the nominee. However, unsurprisingly, this estimate is sensitive to the national tide. (National tide was determined using the July 18, 2018 House ratings from the Cook Political Report. Solid and likely/lean seats were awarded to the advantaged party while toss-up or worse seats were divided equally between the parties. This resulted in an estimate where Democrats would hold 220 seats in the House following the 2018 election.) Thus, if the prospects remain rosy for the Democrats nationally, Smith is likely to convert her appointment into election. However, if the tide turns Smith could find herself at risk of being among the appointees who have run the “Treadmill to Oblivion.”

Ultimately, the estimates based on the past experience of appointees who have sought election to retain their seat are fairly similar to projections that rely on different methods of assessment. While the agreement between these complementary methods of estimating election results provides greater confidence in the likely election outcome, all models are probabilistic assessments of outcomes and are subjects to changes in the political environment.        

Tim Lynch is an assistant professor of political science at the University of St. Thomas.