Underestimating the Voters' Intelligence -- and Paying for It

By Mark Shields

February 24, 2018 5 min read

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 Donald 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, Happy 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 Happy 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.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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