Donald Trump’s election as president could shake up Alabama’s delegation in Congress, opening the door for Gov. Robert Bentley to appoint a new senator from the state.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Trump ally since the Republican primary campaign, is widely seen as a likely appointee for a top-level position in the coming Trump White House.
That would give Bentley, the state’s embattled governor, a chance to appoint a Senate replacement, at least temporarily. Political scientists say Bentley’s choice – if he even needs to make one – is anybody’s guess.
“When governors are in this position, they either look after themselves or they look after the party,” said Glen Browder, a former Congressman and emeritus professor at Jacksonville State University.
Alabama law requires a special election to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate, though the governor has the power to set the election date and appoint a senator to fill the seat in the interim. Browder said that if a governor is choosing a replacement from within his own party, he’s likely to select a strong candidate for the special election – but a governor can also use an appointment to advance his own political goals.
Some state press outlets have floated state Attorney General Luther Strange as a possible candidate. Bentley faces impeachment hearings in the wake of a phone-sex scandal, hearings that are now on hold because Strange is conducting a criminal investigation that overlaps some of the impeachment issues. Sending Strange to the Senate, the theory goes, would take him out of the picture.
Browder said he considered that theory too speculative to comment on. Trump still hasn’t appointed cabinet members, Browder said, and it’s still unclear whether Sessions will have to be replaced.
“It might make more sense to leave Sessions in the Senate, where Trump is going to need an ally,” said George Hawley, a political science professor at the University of Alabama.
Even so, Hawley said, Trump is likely to reward loyalists with key positions, and Sessions was among the first senators to endorse Trump.
In past mid-term appointments, Bentley has largely played it safe, picking political veterans and close allies. He picked Jim Bennett, a widely-respected former secretary of state, to fill out the term left when former Secretary of State Beth Chapman resigned. He picked his own former chief of staff, Chuck Malone, to serve as chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court when Democrat Sue Bell Cobb stepped down.
The Republicans’ seeming lock on Alabama could throw a monkey wrench into the typical appointment process, though, by forcing the governor to select a favorite from within the party.
It was Democrats who had a grip on the state in the 1930s, when then Sen. Hugo Black was nominated to the Supreme Court. When Black left the Senate, Gov. Bibb Graves faced more than one Democrat jockeying for the seat in the coming special election. Instead of choosing a favorite, Star stories from the time indicate, Graves appointed his wife, Dixie, to hold the seat until the election.
Sitting House members may have the best shot at a Senate appointment. Of the 14 senators appointed from various states in the past decade, four were in the House when they were appointed. Two appointees were lieutenant governors, two were current or former state attorneys general, one was a state senator and the rest were from a variety of appointed positions.
Vacant House seats have to be filled by election, so the governor doesn’t get an appointment two-fer by moving a House member to the Senate. JSU political science professor Lori Owens said sitting House members may be reluctant to give up their committee seats to become junior members of the upper house.
“Even the coffee pots are distributed on the basis of seniority in Congress, so it would make an incumbent U.S House member pause and think about the short term and long term benefits of such a move,” Owens wrote in an email to The Star.
In the Washington press, Sessions has been mentioned as a possible attorney general, secretary of defense or national security adviser. During the campaign, Sessions was an adviser to Trump on immigration policy, but it’s unclear whether the senator is in line for an immigration-related position.
If Sessions did become an immigration czar, Hawley said, the choice would send a message.
“It would be a signal that Trump is serious about all his immigration talk,” Hawley said.