Gov. Bill Ritter selected a political novice, former Denver schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, to succeed Ken Salazar in the U.S. Senate. Had Ritter chosen a more seasoned pol, we're guessing the 2009 legislature would not be poised to consider a bill taking the appointment power away from future governors and instead requiring a special election to fill Senate vacancies.
Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, is expected to file legislation any day now that would make the process for filling a vacant U.S. Senate seat nearly identical to the one used to replace departed U.S. House members.
Kopp's bill would require the governor to call a special election no more than 49 days after a vacancy was announced, unless the vacancy occurred within 90 days of a general election, in which case the seat would remain open until the regular election.
Supporters offer several reasonable arguments for change. On balance, however, we're not convinced a thorough overhaul of the appointment system is justified.
For starters, we're leery of the price tag for a statewide special election. The secretary of state's office estimated the state's costs of holding a special election could reach $2 million; counties would have significant spending obligations of their own. And yet even without a special election, Coloradans would vote on candidates for that same office within a relatively short period - no more than 21 months.
Nor are we sure that the process for replacing House members is a sound way to vet candidates for a statewide Senate election.
As with House vacancies, parties would nominate candidates for a vacant Senate seat by convention or by appointment from their central committees. Candidates who didn't win a party nomination could petition their way to the ballot. Yet House hopefuls are more likely to be familiar to more of their constituents given the size of their districts. Senate candidates, meanwhile, simply would not have the time to build relationships across Colorado before a special election if they didn't have them in place already.
Backers of the bill rightly note that the governor's power to fill vacancies is absolute. He could pick a crony or a relative - as did former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, who appointed his daughter Lisa to occupy his U.S. Senate seat when he won the governor's race in 2002.
Nor is a governor under any obligation to solicit public input before making a selection. Ritter did, in this instance - an e-mail account he set up asking for recommendations received some 3,300 messages. And yet that feedback apparently had little influence on his choice. An open records request by The Associated Press found that none of the e-mails released suggested Bennet as a candidate.
We'd be more sympathetic to the proposal if these vacancies were regular occurrences. But they're not. Prior to Salazar's resignation, there had been only three appointed senators from Colorado since the 17th Amendment allowed the direct election of senators in 1913. None of those occurred after World War II.
Incidentally, two of the appointed senators failed to win a full term.
Every governor has a huge incentive to make a wise selection. A lousy choice reflects badly on the governor - and in Ritter's case, if Bennet does a poor job, voters can take it out on both of them in November 2010.