With Mitch McConnell’s backing, Kentucky’s senate president seeks to change vacancy rules

If a U.S. senator from Kentucky doesn’t finish their term, current law allows the governor to choose anyone to fill the role — and it doesn’t matter which party they represent.

So, for example, if Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell or Rand Paul left office early — either by choice, expulsion or death — Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear could put a Democrat in that position.

State Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, wants to change that, and he has McConnell’s backing to do it.

Stivers’ proposal, introduced Wednesday as Senate Bill 228, would require the governor to pick someone who shares the same political party as the departing senator.

It would also make them select that person from a list of three names provided by the executive committee of the departing senator’s state party.

Kentucky hasn’t had a Democratic senator since January 1999, when former Sen. Wendell Ford retired. And with the state’s increasingly conservative electorate, Stivers’ bill would ensure the governor couldn’t appoint a Democrat to what’s likely to be a safe seat for Republicans.

Senate President Robert Stivers, the Republican representative for the 25th District, on the first day of the 2021 Kentucky General Assembly session. Jan. 5, 2021
McConnell, 78, is a fan of Stivers’ plan, according to the longtime senator’s spokesman, Robert Steurer.

“Leader McConnell has discussed the legislation with President Stivers and is fully supportive of the measure,” Steurer said of SB 228 in an email.

Democrats ask: Why now?

Marisa McNee, the Kentucky Democratic Party’s spokeswoman, questioned why Stivers’ plan is being floated now, especially since the legislature gets only 30 working days for its 2021 session. (Sessions in even-numbered years are longer.)

Although there’s a Democrat currently in the Governor’s Mansion, she pointed out the Bluegrass State has had left-wing governors throughout most of McConnell’s 36-year career in Congress, so it’s not like Beshear’s tenure is that unusual.

“My gut reaction … is that it’s very curious that this all of a sudden seems to be an urgent bill that needs to be looked at in a short-session year, shortly after Sen. McConnell lost his majority leader status,” she said.

However, McConnell — whom Kentuckians reelected in a landslide in November — has never publicly shown any indication that he doesn’t plan to serve out his full six-year term, which officially began in January.

“I think the wishful thinking of Democrats that Mitch McConnell is going anywhere will remain just that: a pipe dream,” said Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist and Courier Journal columnist who was an adviser for three of McConnell’s campaigns.

Jennings suggested Stivers’ plan would be fair to the voters who originally elected a Republican or Democrat to fill the Senate seat.

“It puts power in the hands of the voters and takes it away from the politicians, which is sort of a hallmark of McConnell’s views on politics. The man loves elections,” he said.

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