Who'll replace Obama, Biden, Clinton in the Senate?

With two -- maybe even three -- Democratic Senate seats opening up, we take a look at the field of potential successors.

By Gabriel Winant

Published November 18, 2008 7:20PM (EST)

Democratic Senate seats are opening up all over the place. Between Barack Obama’s seat in Illinois, Joe Biden’s spot in Delaware, and maybe Hillary Clinton’s in New York, as many three Democratic governors will soon have big appointments to make. Below, we examine the options and rank them in descending order of probability.


Probably the most important factor to consider in guessing who will fill Obama’s seat is the identity of The Decider: Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The pick that seems likeliest to take some of the under-federal-investigation tarnish off his image is probably the best bet. Blagojevich also faces potentially competing pressures to choose someone who can appeal to conservative voters downstate, and to maintain Illinois’ position as the home of America’s only African American senator.

  • Lisa Madigan: The state’s attorney general is thought to be a potential rival for Blagojevich should he seek reelection in 2010. And picking her wouldn’t just mean eliminating a threat: The daughter of the speaker of the Illinois House and the winner of two statewide elections, she’s an attractive pick in her own right.
  • Tammy Duckworth: A vet who lost her legs in Iraq, Duckworth now heads Illinois' veterans’ affairs department. She lost in her one attempt at elected office, but she's still a good candidate.
  • Jesse Jackson Jr.: The Chicago congressman and prominent Obama backer is actively lobbying Blagojevich for the appointment. Jackson is less controversial than his famous father, but that might not be enough when it comes to a statewide election. He may benefit from the desire to keep the number of African American senators above zero, however.
  • Emil Jones: Jones, the president of the state senate and a mentor to Obama during his time in Springfield, is also African American and might be a less provocative choice than Jackson. But his age -- he's 73 -- means he’d likely be a temporary replacement until 2010, and Illinois' other senator, Dick Durbin, opposes appointing a caretaker.
  • Jesse White: Twice elected secretary of state, White is viewed as the most electable of the potential African American choices. But at 74, he’s not exactly going to be the next Obama.


It's been clear for a while now that Joe Biden was grooming his son, the state's attorney general, to succeed him. But Beau Biden’s off to Iraq, muddying up the situation. According to the Washington Post's sources, Beau won't take the appointment -- though he could still run for the spot in 2010. Plus it's not even clear whether outgoing Gov. Ruth Ann Minner or her successor, Jack Markell, will make the choice. (Both are Democrats.)

Further complicating matters, the state’s lone congressman, Republican Mike Castle, could run for the seat in 2010. A popular former governor, Castle would pose a serious problem for any opponent. 

  • John Carney: Carney, the state's lieutenant governor, lost the Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Markell in an upset. As the state’s other major Democratic pol., though, he'd still be the obvious choice, except for his relative youth. Carney is only 52, which makes it less likely he'd step aside if Beau Biden wants to run in 2010.
  • Myron Steele: A columnist for the Delaware News Journal says Steele -- currently the chief justice of the state supreme court -- is ready to retire from public life soon, and that Biden has signed off on his being appointed to keep Beau's chair warm.
  • Ruth Ann Minner: The outgoing governor, 73, has said she won’t appoint herself, but if the choice falls to Markell and he decides to go the caretaker route, she wouldn’t be a bad pick.
  • Harriet Smith Windsor: A safe, inoffensive choice. Windsor is the secretary of state, and a Minner ally. Hers is an appointed position, though, so it's anyone's guess how'd she fare against Castle.

New York

We know, we know, she hasn't left yet. But a Senate seat from New York is a pretty plum spot, so it would be irresponsible not to speculate.

Here, as in Illinois, there’s a governor with an eye on reelection. Whoever helps Gov. David Paterson's chances in 2010 is likely to get a boost.

  • Andrew Cuomo: Should be the odds-on favorite. His pedigree -- the son of a Democratic icon, he's a former cabinet secretary and now state attorney general -- is impeccable. John McCain mentioned him as a potential SEC head. And he's the most serious threat to Paterson. The only hitch? Cuomo, like the state's senior senator, Chuck Schumer, is a white guy from New York City.
  • Nydia Velazquez: This Brooklyn congresswoman offers Paterson a chance to broaden his appeal with both women and Hispanics, and one source told the New York Daily News that she's the frontrunner. The first Puerto Rican woman elected to Congress, she was an outspoken Clinton supporter in the primaries.
  • Brian Higgins: A congressman who represents a district near Buffalo, it’s clear what recommends Higgins to Paterson: He’s from upstate. That could be sufficient to land an otherwise low-profile lawmaker in the Senate.
  • Nita Lowey: Lowey is a solidly liberal representative from Westchester County, and was in line to run for this seat in 2000, before Clinton got in the race.
  • Thomas Suozzi: As the New York Observer points out, Suozzi, the Nassau County Executive, seems like a mini-Cuomo: He’s a downstate white guy with a solid reputation and a lot of ambition. But he managed only 19 percent in his one statewide run.
  • Eliot Spitzer: Spitzer’s won a tiny new burst of relevance due to the financial meltdown, and there's a certain appeal to the idea of sending "The Sheriff of Wall Street" to Washington. Of course, there's the whole prostitution thing. Still, if Jerry Springer could survive, maybe Spitzer can too.

Update: This post originally described Nydia Velazquez as the first Puerto Rican member of Congress. In fact, she is the first Puerto Rican woman to be elected to the House. Several men preceded her.

Gabriel Winant

Gabriel Winant is a graduate student in American history at Yale.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Hillary Rodham Clinton Joe Biden U.s. Senate