ENPR: Burris and Richardson Flaps and Panetta Pick Enliven Washington


  1. Congress returned to town with two Senate seats in limbo. Things remained reasonably civil as Democrats blocked African American Roland Burris (D-Ill.) from being seated. As Norm Coleman (R) challenges the election results in Minnesota, Democrats held off seating apparent narrow winner Al Franken (D).
  2. Obama has put political capital on the table for the first time by demanding immediate action on his trillion-dollar spending plan. By loudly calling for Senate passage of the "stimulus" right away, Obama runs the risk of looking powerless right away, but also could claim a legislative victory before even taking office.
  3. Obama’s pick of former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta to head the CIA raised many eyebrows and a few outcries. The forced withdrawal of Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Richardson was a rare blow to the Obama team’s image.

Obama Transition

Nominees: Obama’s transition has hit a couple of bumps in the past week.

  1. Obama suffered a minor embarrassment and rare negative press when New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D) was forced to withdraw as Commerce Secretary nominee. Richardson cited an investigation into one of his donors who also won a state contract. It also turns out the donor also gave to the Obama campaign.
  2. What are the repercussions of this flap for Obama. For one, it makes his incoming administration look lax in vetting. Obama’s team told Politico that they had asked Richardson about the issue but got no answer—yet they tapped him anyway. Do Clinton alumni get a fast track to approval by Obama?
  3. Richardson’s troubles got extra attention because "pay-to-play" arrangements are in the spotlight thanks to the arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D). This media focus on favors for donors ought to worry Obama, considering he has also tapped Hillary Clinton and Rahm Emanuel for his administration.
  4. Picking former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta as CIA director was Obama’s most puzzling choice yet. While Panetta did sit in on daily intelligence briefings under Clinton, he is basically an intelligence novice. But after announcing he would retain Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates, combined with his picks of hawks Clinton and Emanuel, Obama was on thin ice with the foreign policy Left. Picking Panetta, an outspoken critic of the Bush CIA’s interrogation and detention tactics, salves that wound with the base.
  5. The Panetta pick also set off Obama’s first spat with Capitol Hill Democrats. Newly minted Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D) publicly complained that Obama hadn’t consulted with her on the CIA question.

Election 2008

Illinois-5: A unique Chicago district, the 5th has been represented by an interesting cast of characters in recent years.

Powerful Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D) held this seat until scandal brought him down in 1994, when he was a prized trophy of the Republican revolution. Rep. Michael Flanagan (R) was a sitting duck in 1996 when he fell to Rod Blagojevich (D) in the overwhelmingly Democratic district. When Blagojevich retired to run for governor in 2002, former Clinton aide Rahm Emanuel (D) won the seat after a hotly contested primary, thanks to help from Chicago Mayor Richard Daley.

Emanuel’s resignation Friday leaves an open seat to be filled by special election. Blagojevich named March 3 as the primary date and April 7 for the general election. Ten Democrats have already jumped into the contest, with more possibly to follow. Reform-minded Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley (D) and State Rep. Dara Feigenholtz (D) are the two established politicians in the race. Former State Rep. Nancy Kaszak (D), who lost in primaries here to both Blagojevich (1996) and Emanuel (2002), could make another run.

Real estate broker and 2008 loser Tom Hanson (R) is running on the GOP side, as is Illinois Minuteman Project Founder Rosanna Pulido (R). But this district is overwhelming Democrat and any Republican will be a very long shot.

Virginia Governor: In Virginia, governors are limited to only one term, which makes every gubernatorial contest an open-seat race. This year, that fact gives the commonwealth’s struggling GOP some hope.

Atty. Gen. Bob McDonell will be the Republican standard bearer this fall, as no other candidates filed to run. Not facing a primary, McDonald won’t sustain any body blows before the general election. It also means every dime McDonald raises can be used to win in November.

But Virginia’s GOP is in free fall, as highlighted by Obama’s winning the state’s 13 Electoral votes last year. Going down the ballot, it just gets worse. Democrats have won the last two governor races, and have taken over both U.S. Senate seats from Republicans in the past two cycles. Also, Democrats nabbed three U.S. House seats from the GOP in 2008, and they took over the state House of Delegates in 2007.

Virginia Democratic gains are centered in white-bread suburbia—in which trend Virginia mirrors the rest of the country. But the gains are far broader than that with Democrats picking up state legislative and congressional seats in every corner of the state in the last two years.

Trying to ride this wave are three already filed Democratic governor candidates, headlined by former Clinton DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. McAuliffe, with his corporate and union ties, starts with a huge fundraising and operational advantage.

Former State Rep. Brian Moran (D), younger brother of Rep. Jim Moran (D), is also in the race. State Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), who lost his race for attorney general four years ago, is seeking a rematch with McDonnell.

McDonnell is a strong candidate and could win despite the state’s steady movement to the Democrats.


Colorado: Gov. Bill Ritter (D) stunned everyone who was paying attention when he named Denver Schools Supervisor Michael Bennet (D) to fill the seat of Sen. Ken Salazar (D), whom Obama has tapped for Interior secretary.

Outside of the Denver political establishment and the Denver education scene, Bennet is basically unknown. He has never run a campaign before, raised funds, or done significant public speaking. His name recognition is basically zero. But he is certainly no placeholder senator, either. He has already launched his 2010 reelection bid even before being sworn in.

By picking Bennet, Ritter leaves a few Democrats feeling snubbed and many feeling shocked, while Republicans have reacted with joy. An unknown political novice handpicked by a governor who is increasingly alienated from his own party, Bennet is much easier target in 2010 than Republicans had expected to see.

The obvious possibilities that Ritter passed over were Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper (D) and state house speaker Andrew Romanoff (D). The biggest weakness both candidates had was that they were from Denver, which would make it hard for them to win votes around the rest of the state. Bennet has that weakness, too.

Liberals are upset with Ritter because Bennet’s record is mixed. He has challenged the labor unions in his schools supervisor role. Another weakness—he’s not a native Coloradan. Bennet grew up inside the Washington Beltway, attending the prestigious St. Albans all-boys Episcopal high school. Bennet’s pick has set off complaints about elitism on liberal blogs (he also attended Yale law school).

So, why did Ritter pick him? Those who know Bennet describe him as perfectly capable and smart. Ritter touted Bennet’s political inexperience as a virtue, declaring "it will take a new generation of leaders, a new way of thinking and a bold new approach to problem-solving" to address America’s problems. Another plus: If Ritter had tapped one of the U.S. congressmen, it would likely have opened up a competitive House race in a special election and a prime GOP takeover opportunity.

Even with all of his weaknesses, Bennet could be safe in 2010. Could Hickenlooper or some other politician challenge him in the primary? Sure, but a primary challenge to Ritter is just as likely in 2010 for any ladder-climbing Democrat. Then there’s the weakness in the GOP bench. Colorado Republicans have trouble naming an A-list statewide candidate for 2010, and with Ritter up for reelection, the best GOP candidate might not go after Bennet.

An alumnus of Janet Reno‘s Justice Department, Bennet in the Senate adds to the spreading influence of the Clintons.

Illinois: The Senate’s refusal to seat Roland Burris (D-Ill.) is not without problems, legally and politically.

No showdown happened at the doors to the Senate floor, which was fortunate for Democrats. Instead, the secretary of the Senate refused to certify Burris, citing the fact that his appointment had not been signed by the appropriate official, Illinois Secretary of State. Jesse White (D) had pointedly refused to fulfill his legal obligation to affix the state seal to the state seal to Blagojevich’s appointment.

Some black politicians have shown no hesitance in playing the race card, with Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) decrying the "lynch[ing]" of Burris. This creates headaches for Democrats. The first crack in the Democratic armor showed itself this week when Sen. Feinstein said she thought Democrats should seat Burris.

Currently, the Senate’s refusal is built upon the possibly illegal foundation of Sec. of State White’s refusal to sign the appointment. If Burris can get a court to order White to approve his appointment, senators could be forced to vote. Is Obama cracking the whip in Springfield to get the law changed? Are Democrats willing to undergo a special election, which Republicans could win?

Minnesota: Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is no longer a U.S. senator, but comedian Al Franken (D) isn’t a senator, either. Minnesota’s secretary of state has certified the election results with Franken ahead by 225 votes, but Franken has not yet been given a "certificate of election" by the governor and the secretary of state.

Coleman is filing a legal challenge to the results, and he has many legitimate complaints. Tthe only consistent factor in rulings by the secretary of state and the state canvassing board was that they ruled in Franken’s favor. But still, Coleman’s odds of winning this election are very slim. Everything would have to go right for him in his challenges for him to win by a tiny margin.

New York: Gov. David Paterson (D) may have tipped his hand that he is, in fact, going to name Caroline Kennedy (D) to fill the seat presumably soon to be vacated by Sen. Hillary Clinton (D), named by Obama to be secretary of State.

Paterson went out of his way to declare that he was appointing someone for only two years, and that the voters would get to choose a senator soon enough. He seemed to be preemptively apologizing for appointing an unqualified pick. Another hint, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, the state’s No. 2 Democrat and an erstwhile critic of picking Kennedy, has publicly declared he thinks she is a fine choice.

If Kennedy is, in fact named—and we won’t know for sure until Clinton is confirmed to State and resigns her Senate seat—some Democrats will immediately consider a primary challenge.