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Obama, Biden Seats in Danger?

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Correction Appended

Lost in the focus on President Barack Obama and Vice President Joseph Biden’s history-making move down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House in January was the fact that Republicans have a historic opportunity to pick up the pair’s former Senate seats.

Over the past century, half of the dozen Senate seats vacated by a new president or vice president have switched partisan control in the next election.

In 2010, Republicans have open-seat opportunities in Illinois and Delaware and could win both seats vacated by a president and vice president in the same cycle for the first time in U.S. history.

The last time a newly elected president and vice president gave up their Senate seats the same year was in 1960. Democrats held President John F. Kennedy’s Massachusetts seat in the next election, but the party lost Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s Texas seat when appointed Sen. William Blakley (D) narrowly lost a 1961 special election to John Tower (R).

“Obviously people see these as elected [not appointed] offices,” said former Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.), who was appointed to fill the vacancy in 1989 when Sen. Dan Quayle was elected vice president. “That’s why the first election is so critical.”

Democratic chances of holding Obama’s seat improved when appointed Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) decided not to run next year. Burris’ tenure has been overshadowed by fallout from his controversial appointment by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), who has since been indicted and impeached. But after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) took a pass on the Senate race and Rep. Mark Kirk (R) jumped in, Republican chances improved dramatically.

In Delaware, former Gov. Ruth Ann Minner (D) appointed longtime Biden aide Ted Kaufman (D) as a placeholder to fill the vice president’s Senate seat. State Attorney General Beau Biden (D) is expected to run for his father’s seat once he returns from active duty in Iraq. Meanwhile, political operatives on both sides of the aisle are waiting for Rep. Mike Castle (R) to make a decision on the race. With Castle, who has represented the entire state both as Congressman and governor, this race might be one of the best GOP takeover opportunities in the country. Without him, it’s not even competitive.

Over the past 100 years, three Senate seats vacated by a president-elect or vice president-elect have been filled with placeholders (not including Kaufman).

In 1948, Democrats held the seat vacated by Alben Barkley (D-Ky.), who was elected vice president under Harry Truman. When appointed Sen. Garrett Withers (D-Ky.) did not run in 1950, Earle Clements defeated Charles Dawson (R) to keep the seat in Democratic hands. Clements lost re-election six years later.

After Kennedy’s election in 1960, Benjamin Smith II (D-Mass.) was appointed to his Senate seat until the election in 1962, when the president’s brother, Edward Kennedy (D), was old enough run and serve.

More recently, Republicans took over the seat vacated by then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) after he and Bill Clinton were elected to the White House in 1992. Appointed Sen. Harlan Mathews (D-Tenn.) didn’t seek a full term, and Fred Thompson (R) defeated Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper 60 percent to 39 percent in the Republican wave of 1994.

The political environment was a critical factor in many of these Senate races.

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