If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2020, what happens to their old office?

It’s January of 2021 and in spite of a hard fought challenge from incumbent President Donald Trump, Democrats have managed to win the presidency (it was a modest victory, Democrats won Arizona and flipped Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa but still lost Florida, Ohio, and North Carolina). They also netted a few house seats and fought the GOP to a 50-50 draw in the Senate (after a contentious recount in Alabama, Doug Jones was able to be re-elected by a 420 vote margin aided in no small part by a strong 3rd party showing by Roy Moore). But depending on who was elected President, we might still be looking at more campaign still. There are several incumbent office holders running for the White House and if any of them were victorious that would create a vacancy which would need to be filled, so let’s explore what could happen if certain candidates were elected to the Presidency (or Vice-Presidency).

Michael Bennet (US Senator from Colorado)

Bennet had been serving in the US Senate since 2009, when he was appointed by then Gov. Bill Ritter to replace Ken Salazar, who was selected by President Obama to be his Secretary of the Interior. Bennet was elected in his own right in 2010 and re-elected in 2016. It’s unlikely that Bennet will win the Democratic nomination but not impossible. In a 2016 exit interview with the New Yorker, President Barack Obama name-checked Bennet when discussing gifted politicians who could be the future of the party (he also mentioned fellow contenders Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg).

If Bennet were elected President, Gov. Jared Polis would appoint a successor who would serve until the end of Bennet’s term (which would be 2022). The front-runner for that position would be Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who was elected in 2018 defeating the Republican incumbent. She would be 36 years old in 2021, making her the youngest woman to ever serve in the US Senate, if appointed. That’s if she isn’t already elected in 2020. Keeping the seat might prove more difficult, as midterm elections have proven unkind to whatever party holds the White House, even if Colorado is trending more blue than purple.

Cory Booker (US Senator from New Jersey)

New Jersey is one of the few states in the country that allows candidates to run for President as well as re-election to their current office. So Booker could potentially choose to run both for re-election to the US Senate and the White House. Booker is also an underdog and has not yet seen his poll numbers rise from the mid-single digits. Despite sharing a number of similarities with Pete Buttigieg (Booker was mayor of Newark for 7 years and is also multi-lingual) has not received the same media darling treatment. It seems unlikely now, but Booker could certainly manage to win the nomination.

If Booker were elected President, Gov. Phil Murphy would appoint a replacement who would serve until a special election in November of that year. It’s unclear who Gov. Murphy would choose to succeed Booker, but one possibility is the Governor may choose himself. Gov. Murphy could appoint a ,such as his chief of staff, and then run for the seat himself instead of re-election as Governor. It wouldn’t be without precedentz: When Sen. Robert Byrd died, then-Gov. Joe Manchin appointed his chief legal counsel to temporarily hold the West Virginia senate seat so he could compete for it himself.

Bill de Blasio (Mayor of New York City)

If in every election ended with superlatives for candidates like “most prepared” or “most charisma” or “best hair”, de Blasio would receive the “windmill prize” for running the most Quixotic campaign of 2020. Which is saying quite a lot because we’ve got some real soon to be also-rans running at the moment. Most New Yorkers don’t even like de Blasio, so it’s hard to imagine how he could convince a primary electorate with over a dozen more viable candidates. Of course in defense of de Blasio, Donald Trump has literally never achieved majority support from voter,s yet still vanquished 17 Republicans and Hillary Clinton, proving that if you’ve got the message for the moment anything is possible.

If de Blasio were elected President, the Public Advocate would become mayor. The current holder of that office is Jumaane Williams who ,was endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America when he unsuccessfully ran for Lt. Gov in 2018. This would mark a pretty big leftward shift in New York politics that might face significant pushback from the party establishmen,t especially since the next election would be just 10 months into Williams’ term.

Kirsten Gillibrand (US Senator from New York)

If Corey Booker’s polling performance has been somewhat underwhelming, Kirsten Gillibrand’s has been downright anemic. In many polls Gillibrand polls at 0% and others she polls at 1%, which is hard to explain, considering she represents one of the largest states in the nation and has the most anti-Trump voting record in the Senate. There are some Democrats who don’t support Gillibrand because of the Al Franken debacle in 2017, but one would assume Gillibrand would find a natural constituency among women in the part,y especially those focused on issues related to the #MeToo movement. However, that support has yet to present itself, but with so many candidates it’s still possible for Gillibrand to make headway.

If Gillibrand were elected President, Gov. Cuomo would make an appointment, who would serve until a special election in November of that year. There is a deep bench of candidates for possible appointment, including Chelsea Clinton, who seems to have an interest in public office, Caroline Kennedy, who was almost appointed to replace Hillary Clinton in 2009, and of course Gov. Cuomo may want the seat himself, as opposed to a 4th term as Governor. Regardless, that appointee would serve until 2024. 

Kamala Harris (US Senator from California)

If anyone on this list is going to be, it’s probably going to be Kamala Harris. Thinking about “What If” with many other these other candidates is a purely academic exercise, because they probably won’t be President. I would be somewhat surprised if Harris was not the nominee. Her politics are not necessarily my ,but her election would just seem like the natural progression of an increasingly progressive, coastal, and diverse Democratic Party. According to Nate Silver, Harris probably also has the most political upside as it relates to creating a base. Of course nothing is guaranteed, sometimes the seemingly obvious choice never really catches on with voters no matter how many times the media says they should (see Marco Rubio in 2016). Assuming the field isn’t steamrolled by former Vice President Joe Biden, Harris could be the front runner.

If Harris were elected President, Gov. Gavin Newsom would make an appointment, who would serve until at least the end of her term in 2022. California is full of Democrats, and the field is wide open for possible replacements.

  • Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles
  • Kevin de Leon, candidate for US Senate in 2018
  • Attorney General Xavier Becerra
  • George Clooney
  • Ro Khanna
  • Katie Hill
  • Ted Lieu
  • Mayor Sam Liccardo of San Jose
  • Mayor London Breed of San Francisco
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (As a caretaker)

Amy Klobuchar (US Senator from Minnesota)

Amy Klobuchar is probably not going to be President. Her fundraising has been anemic (40% was senate campaign transfers), her polling has been unimpressive, and she is attempting to appeal to a general election audience which is much more moderate than a Democratic primary. Perhaps if Joe Biden and a dozen others weren’t running,she’d be formidable, but a number of stories relating to her treatment of staff and consuming salad with combs probably have damaged her campaign beyond repair. However Klobuchar has proven herself to be effective at communicating with rural voters and her home state neighbors Iowa, so it’s entirely possible that she understands those voters better than anyone else running and therefore might surprise by the time the caucus rolls around.

If Klobuchar were elected President, Gov. Tim Walz would appoint a replacement who would serve at least until a special election in November of that year. Attorney General Keith Ellison would be an obvious choice, but it’s unclear whether the moderate Walz would appoint the progressive or if Ellison who only recently left DC would want to return so soon if ever (Ellison also faced serious scandals in 2018). Walz might also consider his Lt. Gov Peggy Flannigan or freshman Rep. Angie Craig.

Bernie Sanders (US Senator from Vermont)

The election of Bernie Sanders would represent the realization of 100 years of movement socialism in the United States which began in earnest with the presidential candidacy of Eugene V. Debs from prison. Unlike the UK and other democracies, the US never developed a true labor party to represent the interests of the working class. The Democratic party still exists in large part to defend neo-colonial interests abroad and corporate interests at home, only distinguishable from the Republican Party in its rejection of white supremacy. Because Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and does not pretend to be concerned with promoting the center-left agenda of the Democratic establishment, he is facing some audacious resistance from party elites as well as some rank-and-file voters. Unless Sanders can inspire non-voters and independents to support him in the primary, he will almost certainly not be the nominee, because he has become a factional candidate. However he has shown an ability to compete, and his 2016 campaign as well as current fundraising totals serve as evidence.

If Sanders were elected President, the Governor would appoint a successor to serve until a special election could be called, which would be “within 3 months following vacancy”. Because gubernatorial terms in Vermont are two years instead of four, the incumbent Governor Phil Scott, who is a Republican, would be up for re-election in 2020, and either he or a Democratic successor would choose Sanders’ replacement. The party of Sanders’ replacement is functionally irrelevant because should Sanders become President, he’d almost certainly face opposition within his own party in addition to congressional Republicans. Institutional support simply does not exist for Sanders, and his legislative priorities would be stymied. It’s likely that Sanders’ eventual replacement would be either Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman who, like Sanders, is not a Democrat (Zuckerman is a member of the left-wing progressive party) or current Rep. Peter Welch.

Elizabeth Warren (US Senator from Massachusetts)

Elizabeth Warren is having a political moment, and it could snowball into something larger if she plays her cards right. Warren is currently polling third behind Biden and Sanders according to the RealClearPolitics polling average, and rising. Warren has been doing something radical the last few months: creating policies and talking about them in detail. This has been unique in a campaign that has been full of non-specific generalities, broad ideas, and platitudes by other candidates.

If Warren were elected President, her Senate seat would almost certainly be occupied by a Republican for somewhere between “145-160 day,s” according to the Massachusetts statute on filling vacancies. The Governor of Massachusetts is Charlie Baker, a Republican re-elected in 2018 who would be assigned the task of choosing a replacement for a President Warren. This would seriously undermine Warren’s legislative priorities for the first 100 days of her presidency because Mitch McConnell would maintain his position as majority leader and would without a doubt continue his long record of obstruction. It’s hard to imagine what Warren could get done without the Senate and harder still to imagine a successful first term after being robbed of the massive cache of political capital usually afforded to presidents. As for eventual successors, the clearest choice of the party is probably Rep. Joe Kennedy III, whose political star is on the rise.