As expected, Jeff Merkley pulled ahead of Republican Senator Gordon Smith as Multnomah County reported its results, leading many media outlets - including The Oregonian and MSNBC - to call the election for Merkley. This morning, Smith conceded defeat, settling what was long considered as the cycle’s ultimate toss-up (though Merkley gained a clear advantage over the past month) and what was certainly one of the year’s most bitterly fought Senate races.
The incumbent Senator was unable to overcome the unpopularity of his party label in this blue-leaning state, and he was burdened by a schizophrenic campaign in which he supported McCain but touted his relationship with Obama, pledged to exercise soft-spoken non-partisanship before lambasting his opponent in one of the most brutal attack ads of the cycle.
This gives Senate Democrats their 6th pick-up, and the one that is arguably the most satisfying to the party’s left given Merkley’s progressive profile. They are now guaranteed 57 seats with 3 left undecided: Alaska, Georgia and Minnesota.
(There is nothing new to report in these other races. In Georgia, we are waiting for Fulton County to finish counting its absentee ballots. In Minnesota, the Coleman-Franken dogfight is sure to head to a December recount, and election officials say that there could certainly be enough uncounted ballots to reverse the result. In Alaska, Mark Begich has closed the gap by a few hundred votes and now trails by 3,000 with an estimated 50,000 absentee ballots left to be counted - which should not happen for a few weeks.)
There is no reason to fear that December 2nd - the date of Georgia’s runoff - will mark the end of Senate politicking. Not only is there a chance that Minnesota’s result remain in contention deep into December, but a number of other seats are in question, starting with Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s Illinois and Delaware seats!
Both Senators will resign sometime in the coming weeks, and their respective governors will have to appoint their successor. There is no clear favorite for either seat, though there is one important factor to keep in mind: Barack Obama is the Senate’s only African-American member. Unless Illinois Gov. Blagojevich appoints a black politician (and there are several high-profile names circulating, including Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. and Emil Jones, the president of the state Senate and one of Obama’s mentors), there will be no African-American in the 111th Senate!
Other names that are circulating in Illinois include Rep. Jan Schakowsky, favored by labor, and Tammy Duckworth, who lost a high profile House race in 2006 before being tapped in the Blagojevich Administration. Blagojevich - who is widely unpopular - could also appoint himself. In Delaware, Biden would like his son to follow his footsteps, but Beau is deployed to Iraq until October 2009. The governor could appoint a caretaker until then or choose someone with more permanent ambitions.
And we are likely to get even more new Senators as Barack Obama starts naming Cabinet positions - potentially drawing from the ranks of congressional Democrats. One politician that is looking to join an Obama Administration is Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, who endorsed Obama at a key moment of the Democratic primaries and is now mentioned as a possible Secretary of State.
A Kerry appointment would mean a 2009 special election (the Democatic state legislature stripped the Governor of its appointment rights in 2004 when they feared Mitt Romney would pick a Republican successor to a President Kerry) - and one that is likely to be extremely competitive, at least on the Democratic side. There has not been an open Senate seat in the state since 1984, and there are more than a dozen Democrats in the state whose ambitions have been frustrated for much of the past two decades.
(If a seat opened up in a normal election year, some of the ten representatives might not dare to run as they would have to give up their House seat, but there is no such problem in a special election - so this would very much be a brutal free-for-all.)