Monday, February 09, 2009

Iowa Senate appointments

History Lesson: Iowa Senate appointments

U.S. Senate appointments are a hot issue these days. Assuming Judd Gregg's confirmed, an unusually high total of five Senators will be sitting by appointment, and we've seen all kinds of scenarios: the blatant placeholder in Delaware, the deal-making in New Hampshire, the Caroline Kennedy song and dance in New York and the Blagojvich-Burris opera buffa.

So it's not a shocker that proposals to ban the practice are in the works. Russ Feingold wants to do it at the federal level by constitutional amendment, and Mark Kuhn wants to do it at the state level through legislation.

It's not an issue that's come up in Iowa since great-grandfather's day, when we saw a run of three Senate vacancies and two appointments in 14 years.

Iowa's first vacancy in the era of popular Senate election came in 1922 when William Kenyon became a federal judge. Charles Rawson was appointed, did not run, and served nine months. Progressive Republican Smith Brookhart took over for the last two years of the Kenyon term.

Brookhart appears to have been quite the character. The great political cartoonist Ding Darling, pioneer of the now-dead Des Moines Register front page editorial cartoon, protrayed Brookhart as a blowhard isolationalist, alongside LaFollette, William Borah of Idaho, and California's Hiram Johnson.

And Brookhart plays a central role in the next vacancy, in 1926. In April of that year, the Senate reversed the result of Iowa's 1924 election, unseated Brookhart, and seated conservative Democrat Daniel Steck in his place. (This case gets pointed to now in light of the Franken situation, as proof the Senate could provisionally seat a member and then reverse course later.) Officially it was about election conduct, but what it was REALLY about was that Brookhart had supported Fightin' Bob LaFollette over Calvin Coolidge. Which kind of makes Brookhart the Ed Fallon of 1924. How contentious was it? The Iowa Republican Party backed Steck in the challenge.

Undeterred by his unseating, Brookhart challenged longtime Sen. Albert Cummins in the primary for the other Senate seat. It was a rematch; Cummins had fended off a 1920 primary challenge from Brookhart, but this time Brookhart won.

In late July, Cummins died. A special election was set to coincide with the 1926 general election – but only for the few months remaining on Cummins' term. After a five-ballot Republican convention nominated David Stewart in early August, he was appointed to the seat. Stewart ran for and won the short term, while Brookhart won the full term and went back to DC to serve alongside his old pal Daniel Steck. Awk-ward...

Brookhart lost his 1932 primary, and in the November FDR landslide the seat went to Democrat Richard Murphy, who created Iowa's most recent Senate vacancy when he died in a July 1936 car accident. This time, the seat stayed vacant until the November election, when Democrat Guy Gillette won a special election for the last two years of the term.

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