Who will wear the hat? Sizing up the possible replacements for Salazar

(Photo/cybertoad, Flickr)
(Photo/cybertoad, Flickr)
Tuesday morning, at least a dozen Democrats looked in the mirror and saw the next U.S. senator from Colorado. Trouble is, all but one of them were seeing things.

With the announcement the state’s senior senator is President-elect Barack Obama’s pick to be the next secretary of interior, it falls on Gov. Bill Ritter to name Sen. Ken Salazar’s replacement. Within hours of news leaking that Salazar would give up his Senate seat, the names of prominent — and not-so-prominent — Democrats emerged. Some are serious contenders, some would be top picks under different circumstances, and a few, like Academy Award hopefuls, are happy just to be nominated.

Ritter will wield some serious power in the next few weeks, elevating two Democrats to statewide office — Salazar’s Senate seat and another post soon to be vacated by Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who won election to Congress last month — while, at the same time, selecting two of his running mates in 2010. Unlike New York Sen. Hillary Clinton’s replacement, who must run in a 2010 special election and again for a full term in 2012, Colorado’s newest senator has to run but once, in two years. That’s a relatively short time to establish incumbency in voters’ minds after an appointment and raise an estimated $15 million to compete in the next election, so the ability to cut an imposing statewide figure and proven fundraising ability will be foremost in Ritter’s mind as he picks.

Colorado hasn’t had a Senate vacancy since 1941, when Sen. Alva Adams died in office and was replaced by Sen. Eugene Milliken, who went on to win a special election and re-election twice, serving 15 years, so there’s no recent precedent for Ritter as he decides how to make the appointment. He’ll no doubt avoid the shenanigans Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich stands accused of entertaining while trying to sell — er, fill — President-elect Barack Obama’s seat, but he also seems to be moving to cut off the sort of public campaign New York Gov. Paterson faces as he fills Sen. Hillary Clinton’s seat.

“In the coming days,” Ritter said in a statement Wednesday, “I will work thoughtfully, deliberately and quickly to identify a successor to Sen. Salazar.” The key word is quickly, which likely means Ritter probably won’t appoint a commission and take applications, at least not to the drawn-out extent he has while finding a replacement for Coffman.

The Senate seat won’t be open until the middle of January, according to Salazar’s office. “Sen. Salazar intends to remain in office until he is confirmed,” a spokesman told the Colorado Independent shortly after his nomination was announced Wednesday. But that won’t stop Ritter from naming a replacement long before Congress swears in on Jan. 6, at the very least to give Salazar’s replacement time to assemble a staff and the ability to hit the ground running as soon as Salazar steps down.

There’s been no shortage of prognostication, ranking and dissection of the possible candidates to replace Salazar. The Denver Post examines the choices here and here before deciding “three names top list to fill Salazar’s Senate seat,” listing Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, term-limited state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, in that order.

The Rocky Mountain News assigns odds to the candidates, picking Hickenlooper as the 3:1 favorite, followed closely by Perlmutter at 4:1, then Sen. Salazar’s brother, U.S. Rep. John Salazar, and Romanoff before the odds against selection start soaring into the stratosphere.

ColoradoPols (slightly miffed at the Rocky’s appropriation of the Web site’s practice of laying probabilities for candidates) reverses the odds, predicting Perlmutter is the favorite, followed by Hickenlooper and Romanoff, with John Salazar rounding out its list of serious candidates. The selection is narrowed, Pols writes, because “everything revolves around one major point: Who is the best running mate for Ritter in 2010? He needs a strong top of the ticket to help him get re-elected, and that will play large in any decision.”

At least one Colorado newspaper already endorsed a candidate: The Fort Collins Coloradoan considers Romanoff to be Ritter’s best choice. “His energy and dedication to resolving some of Colorado’s major issues, including budgetary limitations and constitutional conflicts, is unmatched,” the paper opines.

Liberal group ProgressNow Action posted a Senate vacancy poll Wednesday afternoon and vowed to post results Thursday, as well as to gather comments to “share with the Governor and media throughout the state.”

Farther afield, Salon reviews the top candidates, adding Denver’s U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, the dean of the Colorado congressional delegation and a national leader on health care and energy issues, who “might have to tack right slightly for 2010, but that wasn’t an obstacle for now-Senator Mark Udall, also a former representative from a liberal district.” Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, who was a top contender for Obama’s secretary of education, has “an impressive resume and serious reformist credentials” but might have difficulty coming up to speed for a statewide election in just a couple years, Salon notes.

The Washington Post’s The Fix pegs Ritter himself as the top contender, followed by Hickenlooper, John Salazar and Romanoff as frontrunners. Ritter could, under the law, appoint himself to the seat but few observers believe it’s likely and even fewer believe it would be any easier to defend a Senate seat than the governor’s office, especially after what might be perceived as a self-serving stunt.

Politico’s Scorecard ranks Romanoff, DeGette, Perlmutter and Hickenlooper as most likely to be appointed, while noting a John Salazar appointment could smack of nepotism. “While he clearly is a possibility,” Josh Kraushaar writes, “many Democrats wonder whether Ritter will want to appoint a family member (albeit a congressman) — given the controversy that has dogged other governors for considering family members, family friends or famous family names for the appointments.”

FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver doesn’t scoff at the notion the Blue Dog John Salazar could be named but wonders whether Democrats can stomach the risk. “Basically,” Silver writes, “he would represent a sacrifice of ideology for electability.” Silver also evaluates health care executive (and the original “lawyer-lobbyist”) Tom Strickland, who lost bids for Colorado’s other Senate seat twice, in 1996 and 2002, to retiring Republican Sen. Wayne Allard. Strickland “has been tested and twice failed that test,” Silver notes, dubbing him one of the more “unorthodox” choices.

The New York Times Caucus blog points to a concern that will likely help sway Ritter’s choice: After electing Boulder Democrat Mark Udall to fill the state’s other Senate seat, Colorado voters might be inclined toward someone from the more conservative wing of the party, “a Democrat who knows the business-end of a cowboy boot and can talk credibly about cattle, corn, irrigation and the housing angst of the moderate-leaning suburbs.” John Salazar earns top mention from the influential blog, followed by Perlmutter, Hickenlooper and Romanoff, who “earned big chits in the upper tiers of both parties for his handling of inter-party spats in the statehouse.”

The New Republic’s The Plank blog drops another name into the ranks of front-runners. While noting Romanoff would be “popular among progressives,” TNR suggests “Hickenlooper, Salazar, and Peña are probably the only ones with enough statewide recognition and street cred to knock off a Republican challenger two years from now.” That’d be former Denver Mayor and two-time Clinton cabinet officer Federico Peña, who has been spending his time as an investment banker since serving as secretary of transportation and then energy. While the clamor isn’t deafening, there is pressure on Ritter to name a Latino to replace Salazar, who became Colorado’s first Latino to hold statewide office when he won election as the state’s attorney general, and was also the state’s first Latino senator.

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