I was curious about the question of which Senators were least qualified to represent an entire state in federal office. So I started looking at the backgrounds of the 100 Senators (and Vice-President Biden) to see who stuck out the most. Every Senator was somewhat lucky, but who was the luckiest? And who had the most unconventional road to the Senate? I’m mainly focused on what the individual’s most obvious qualifications were.
A near-majority of Senators came from the US House of Representatives. In most cases (about 90 percent), they were sitting members of the House prior to their promotion to the more prestigious chamber. And they’re usually elected to the Senate after 3-5 terms in the lower chamber. There are some exceptions. Ben Cardin of Maryland was a Congressman for twenty years before he became a Senator, while Kirsten Gillibrand of New York was appointed to the Senate shortly after finishing her first term in the House. The most unconventional Representative to become a Senator may have been Olympia Snowe, who was also Maine’s First Lady at the time.
Of course, many US Representatives had significant accomplishments prior to election to that office. Even if someone’s chosen for the Senate shortly after election to the House, they may have been waiting for that first opportunity for a long time. For example, Chuck Grassley was elected to the Senate after three terms in the US House, but he had spent 15 years in the Idaho House of Representatives before running for US Congress. Rick Berg of North Dakota is a freshman Representative who will probably be elected to the Senate in November. But before his first term in the US House began, he had spent 26 years in the North Dakota House of Representatives, including six as Majority Leader.
Then there are about ten Governors who became Senators. Tom Carper of Delaware is the only Senator to have also served as both a Congressman and a Governor. There were thirteen others whose major claim to fame was holding another statewide office, such as Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor or State Treasurer.
Bill Nelson of Florida was a five-term Congressman who had lost a gubernatorial primary, before he came back to be elected State Treasurer. Harry Reid was a Lieutenant Governor who lost bids for US Senate and the Las Vegas Mayorality, before he resuscitated his political career with a stint as a Las Vegas Gaming Commissioner, using that as his launchpad to the US House. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania held two statewide offices before he became Senator, as the state’s 49th Auditor-General, and 34th Treasurer.
Two Senators (Mitch McConnell, Chris Coons) were County Executives. Four Senators were elected to the office largely due to their reputations as mayors: Dianne Feinstein was Mayor of San Francisco, Richard Lugar was Mayor of Indianapolis, Bob Corker was Mayor of Chattanooga, and Mark Begich was Mayor of Anchorage. Five other Senators have been Mayors, but used that as a launchpad for an intermediary office, before becoming Senator. Mike Johanns was Mayor of Lincoln, Nebraska prior to his election as Governor.
Four served the President
Jim Webb of Virginia was Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy. Lamar Alexander was George HW Bush’s Secretary of Education, although he was also Governor of Tennessee before that. Mike Johanns was George W Bush’s Secretary of Agriculture , although he was Governor of Nebraska before that. Rob Portman of Ohio served as the US Trade Representative, and OMB Director, although he had spent twelve years in the US House before that.
Nine senators were elected or appointed straight from the state legislature. Four had been presiding officers of their legislative bodies, although I’m slightly skeptical about Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. After four years in the lower house of the Alaska State Legislature, in which a single US House seat has been split into 39 districts, she had just been selected to be the Majority leader, when the Governor, her dad, appointed her to the Senate to fill his seat. The timing of her selection as Majority Leader is a little suspicious, and she was never able to serve in that position.
Patty Murray served four years in the Washington Senate, prior to her election, so she may be the least “qualified” state legislator to become a sitting Senator.
The senate is on top of the hierarchy of legislative offices within the United States. Below that is the US House. Below that is the upper chamber of the state legislature. Below that is the lower chamber of the state legislature. And below that are the various city and town councils. While a few senators got their start at the bottom, and slowly work their way up, Carl Levin of Michigan is the only Senator directly elected from a City Council.
Members of the Detroit City Council serve in at-large districts, which provides an opportunity for the lawmakers to gain more name-recognition. Levin was also Council President, and had previously served as Assistant Attorney General for the state. So his rapid ascendancy isn’t quite as impressive as that of Vice-President Joe Biden, who had served two years in the New Castle County Council (representing a twelfth of the county) before his election to the Senate.
Two District Attorneys
Two senators were the equivalent of District Attorneys, who are generally much more likely to get elected to the US House, a lower executive office, or “minor” statewide office (State Attorney General, Lieutenant Governor) than to something as prestigious as the Senate. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was Chittenden County State’s Attorney, while Minnesota Senior Senator Amy Klobuchar was Hennepin County Attorney.
Senators Mike Lee and Orrin Hatch of Utah were both attorneys elected to the Senate in their first run for public office. Lee had been more prominent, as Assistant US Attorney in Salt Lake City, as well as Governor John Huntsman’s General Counsel. He also served a one year Supreme Court clerkship with Alito.
Two Wisconsin businessmen with rich families
Retiring Senator Herb Kohl and newly elected Sector Ron Johnson were both businessmen who won their first bids for political office. Kohl had also served for two years as Chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party, while Johnson claimed to be apolitical until he was inspired by the tea party. Neither established the company that was the source of their wealth. Kohl’s dad founded the Kohl’s department store chain, and Herb Kohl served as President of the company for ten years. Johnson’s father-in-law and brother-in-law owned the company he worked for.
Three Commissioners/ Superintendents
Michael Bennet was Superintendent of Denver Schools, before he was appointed to the Senate. He was since elected to a full term. Susan Collins had previously been Commissioner of the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, although she has also been the Republican nominee for Governor two years before she was elected to the Senate. Frank Lautenberg had been Executive commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, prior to his first election to the Senate.
Rand Paul was a physician who helped his Texan dad’s presidential campaign. Former Saturday Night Live writer/ performer Al Franken doesn’t exactly have the typical resume for a Senator, although he was active in Democratic causes in Minnesota. Both were elected to office during excellent years for their respective political parties.
Two Former Senators
Dan Coats of Indiana returned to the Senate after a twelve year absence, during which he had served as Ambassador to Germany. Frank Lautenberg returned two years after his departure, as an emergency replacement for Robert Torricelli, who resigned while investigated for unambiguously illegal contributions.
To answer my initial question, it seems that the least qualified people to become sitting Senators were Orrin Hatch, Ron Johnson and Rand Paul. If you count Biden, as the President of the Senate, he was probably the least accomplished of all. There had to be some awkward good-byes at the New Castle County Council when the new guy became a Senator. The most accomplished people to become sitting Senators might be Tom Carper (as a former Governor and Representative), Mike Johanns (as a former Mayor, Governor and cabinet member) and Rob Portman (who held two positions in the Bush administration and served 12 years in the US House.)