The morning after Alabama’s bruising Super Tuesday GOP US Senate primary to select a challenger to current Democrat Senator Doug Jones, most Alabama voters woke up wondering how we wound up with a run off between former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. Tuberville received about 34% and Sessions received a very weak 31% for someone who had held that same seat for two decades. Congressman Bradley Byrne came in a strong third with about 26%; and Byrne was the second choice for the vast majority of voters. So over a third of Alabama voters face a tough somewhat unpalatable choice in the run off for Senate.
While many dispute Sessions’ recusal from the Russia investigation, he still carries very heavy baggage that most Trump supporters believe he failed the President; and with already 20 years in the Senate and an overwhelming eagerness to return to the Senate, some question Sessions’ motivation to represent Alabama or just get back in the club. Then we have Arkansas native Tommy Tuberville who lived and voted in Florida for the 2018 election, so how does he really represent Alabama? His connection is that he coached Auburn for 9 years, but he also coached Mississippi, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati. So why did he choose Alabama over Mississippi, Texas, or Ohio? And really, why didn’t he go home to Arkansas?
It seems obvious US Senators should represent their states, but it’s not just the people or football. The framers of the Constitution intended Senators to represent their states as a whole not specifically the people. Senators are to represent their state governments almost like ambassadors to the federal government. The House of Representatives represents the popular will of the people, but the Senate represents the interests of each state government.
The founders were concerned that the states felt they were vested in the federal government and also had direct oversight of a powerful central government. Over two centuries later, we tend to forget each state is autonomous, sovereign, and voluntarily part of this Union. To emphasize the role of state governments and their authority, the Constitution prescribed that each state legislature selected its two US Senators.
At first, state legislatures picking and sending their Senators worked, but as political parties developed that method broke down. During the 19th Century as partisan differences grew and various states had split legislatures with each body held by a different party, agreement on Senate appointments sometimes became difficult if not impossible. So there was a growing problem of Senate vacancies going unfilled, sometimes for years. States were depriving themselves of representation which eroded Senate legitimacy if every state had not had their say.
As early as 1826, a reform for direct election of US Senators was proposed, but sitting Senators generally opposed any change. The problem of vacancies continued to worsen, so finally in 1907 Oregon unilaterally changed their Senate selection method to direct election by the people. By 1912, some 29 states chose their Senators by direct election either in a primary or general election, so with this new blood in the Senate the 17th Amendment was finally approved by the Senate. The House and states acted quickly to ratify the 17th Amendment by 1913 which changed selection of Senators to direct election for all states.
Over the past century of direct elections, have voters forgotten the concept that your Senators look out for “your” state? Chicago native Hillary Clinton moved from Arkansas to New York to seize their Senate seat. Michigan native and subsequent Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney somehow convinced Utah voters to let him have their Senate seat. How did we get to where voters are seduced by celebrity mercenaries looking for a Senate seat? Is there any doubt that had Tuberville lost he would already be back in Florida?
Alabama residency requirements for US Senate should be changed to at least ten years; we need Senators who represent Alabama and not just some entry into national politics. To guard against career politicians who just won’t retire, we could use term limits. But ultimately, our founders trusted the people to enforce term limits and recognize pretenders. Self-government requires an informed and engaged electorate. We get the elected officials we deserve because we the people put them there.
“I do not sit with deceitful men, Nor will I go with pretenders.” Psalm 26:4
Pete Riehm is the host of Common Sense Radio heard 8pm every Thursday on FMTalk106.5 or streaming at fmtalk1065.com. Email him at [email protected] or on Twitter @PeteRiehm or visit http://peteriehm.com.