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GOP Senate Candidates Advocate 17th Amendment Repeal

How would the Senate look without Senators elected by voters?

Before the ratification of the 17th Amendment in 1913, that’s exactly how it worked, with increasingly corrupt state legislatures picking Senators.

While there’s no chance of the amendment being repealed, a small number of Republican Senate candidates are coming under fire for even broaching the subject.

The Michigan Democratic Party held a conference call this morning in reaction to a Roll Call report that former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R), who is challenging Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D), is championing a repeal of the direct election of Senators. On the call, Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Mark Brewer charged Hoekstra with hypocrisy.

“We should be focused on jobs and the economy, not taking away people’s right to vote for their U.S. Senators like Hoekstra proposes. It’s hypocritical that Hoekstra is running for Senate but would then take away the public’s right to vote for this office if elected,” Brewer said.

Last November, Hoekstra told a conservative talk radio program on WAAM in Ann Arbor that allowing people to elect their own Senators weakened the power of the states relative to the federal government.

“The direct election of U.S. Senators made the U.S. Senate act and behave like the House of Representatives,” Hoekstra said. “The end result has led to an erosion of states’ rights.”

Hoekstra is not the only Republican Senate nominee to express such opinions. And their Democratic opponents are attempting to profit.

In Arizona, presumptive Democratic Senate nominee Richard Carmona has circulated a Huffington Post story that cited Rep. Jeff Flake (R), his presumed general election opponent, making similar comments to conservative supporters last week.

Rep Todd Akin, the GOP nominee facing Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) in Missouri this fall, signaled during a primary debate in May that he might favor repeal.

“I don’t think the federal government should be doing a whole lot of things that it’s doing,” Akin said on KY3. “It might well be that a repeal of the 17th Amendment might tend to pull that back, but I haven’t written any thesis on it or anything like that.”

Richard Mourdock, the Republican nominee for Senate in Indiana, expressed similar sentiment in a February 2012 appearance that he said was sure to get the attention of Democrats tracking his campaign events. Mourdock, however, seemed to have thought through the issue.

“The House of Representatives was there to represent the people. The Senate was there to represent the states,” Mourdock said.

The framers designed the Constitution to have state legislators select Senators in order to strengthen the power of state governments. The theory was that Senators dependent on the state government for reappointment would not support taking too much power away from the states.

“It is recommended by the double advantage of favoring a select appointment, and of giving to the State governments such an agency in the formation of the federal government as must secure the authority of the former, and may form a convenient link between the two systems,” James Madison wrote when he addressed the question in the Federalist Papers.

Mourdock said another benefit of appointing Senators would be to reduce the influence of campaign money.

“In today’s world, we see millions and millions of dollars spent on Senate campaigns,” Mourdock said. “Two years ago, in 2010, Sharron Angle out in Nevada spent $31 million dollars, just herself. How much money would be spent in federal Senate races if the state legislators were electing those people. You just took the money out of politics.”

However, the progressive movement of the early 20th century pushed to require that Senators be popularly elected precisely because money had become a corrupting force within the state legislatures.

State legislatures and potential Senators regularly faced charges of buying and selling Senate seats. The Senate historical office has written that bribery became a common occurrence and part of the game.

For instance, with the states soon to consider the constitutional amendment to subject Senators to the voters, the Senate expelled Sen. William Lorimer (R-Ill.) in 1912. Newspapers discovered that supporters paid about $100,000 to secure the selection of Lorimer by the Illinois Legislature.

In many states, Senate seats that become vacant during a term may still be filled by appointment, as was the case when former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed fellow Democrat Roland Burris to serve out the term of President Barack Obama apparently after being unable to find a bidder for the office.

Based on the pay schedule from the Lorimer case, Balgojevich may have undervalued the Senate seat. Federal investigators found Blagojevich was seeking $1.5 million in benefits and contributions for the seat. By contrast, Lorimer’s associates would have paid almost $2.4 million in today’s money for the office.

Blagojevich was sentenced in December to 14 years in federal prison after being convicted of public corruption charges, including the scheme to sell the Senate seat.

The questions about the way Senators are elected did not originate this cycle.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) told CNN as a Senate candidate in July 2010 that he would support rolling back the constitutional change.

“I do think the 17th Amendment was a mistake,” Lee said. “I do think that we lost something when we adopted it, but I don’t think that in our lifetimes we’re going to see any movement afoot to do that.”

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.