Sunday, July 15 , 2018, 6:46 pm | Fair 76º


Mark Shields: Underestimating the Voters’ Intelligence — and Paying for It

Politics can be both cruel and unsentimental. Consider the case of Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., known on Capitol Hill — since his first election to Congress in 1972 — for his civil and amiable treatment of others, irrespective of party, and, as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, for securing federal billions for his small, poor state.

Having recently been hospitalized twice and confronting multiple health challenges, Cochran, 80, has learned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, his colleague for 33 years, has admitted to The New York Times' Jonathan Martin that though it's "premature" to analyze a possible Mississippi special election to replace Cochran, McConnell and President Trump have separately met with Mississippi's Republican governor, Phil Bryant, to urge Bryant — should the Cochran seat become vacant for any reason — to appoint himself to the Senate.

Here's my unsolicited advice to Bryant: Do not, in your own self-interest, appoint yourself to the Senate. As my sainted precinct committeewoman used to tell us, "do not overestimate the factual knowledge of voters, but never underestimate the intelligence of voters." Voters who are not able to list the member nations of NATO are still wise enough to see through any staged, counterfeit ritual in which a governor "resigns" his office only to have his hand-picked successor then appoint him to a vacant Senate seat.

I say "him" advisedly, because since the direct election of U.S. senators began in 1914, nine male governors have succumbed to the temptation to go through the resignation charade to become painlessly, without the inconvenience of an election and the intrusion of actual voters, a senator. Eight of these self-promoters, beginning with Montana's John Erickson in 1933, were defeated the next time they faced their home-state voters. The most recent example was Minnesota's Wendell Anderson in 1978.

As governor, Anderson, a silver medal-winning Olympic hockey player, had successfully campaigned directly to Minnesotans to persuade a recalcitrant Legislature to equalize state school funding. Having carried all 87 Minnesota counties in his '74 re-election and enjoying a favorable job rating of 70 percent, Anderson was mentioned as a possible running mate for the 1976 Democratic presidential nominee, Jimmy Carter. Instead of Anderson, Carter chose Sen. Walter Mondale of Minnesota to form his winning ticket. Anderson, succumbing to temptation, resigned as governor and then had his lieutenant governor, Rudy Perpich, appoint him to the vacant Mondale Senate seat. Such scheming affronted reform-minded voters, who, at their first chance, retired both Anderson and Perpich to private life and awarded the state's other Senate seat, created by the death of Hubert Humphrey, to Republican David Durenberger. For Democrats, 1978 is still remembered as the year of the Minnesota Massacre.

Who was the only governor to win election from voters after having orchestrated his own appointment to the Senate? That would be Kentucky Gov. Albert "Happy" Chandler, who, in 1939, went from the Statehouse to the Senate. Kentuckians voted in 1940 — and again in 1942 — to keep Sen. Chandler. Today he is best remembered for his courageous leadership as commissioner of Major League Baseball. He overruled a 15-1 vote by baseball team owners in 1947, enabling the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign Jackie Robinson and break baseball's color barrier. For upholding justice and for honoring America, Chandler was fired three years later by the owners.

The lesson here? Give Kentucky voters some 78 years ago credit for sensing the future greatness in Chandler and re-electing their governor-become-senator. For every other governor who is tempted, including Gov. Bryant, do not underestimate the voters' intelligence; they can spot it when the fix is in.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through Stripe below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments and a mailing address for checks.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover
One click only, please!

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >