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The Little-Known but Highly Valuable Vacancy Committee

Politicians in five states have a tricky way of getting around certain kinds of pressure from voters. We saw this at work last week when Colorado Senator Evie Hudak resigned her seat.
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Aerial view of the Colorado State Capitol. (PHOTO: JOHN MAUSHAMMER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

Aerial view of the Colorado State Capitol. (PHOTO: JOHN MAUSHAMMER/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

In a relatively small political story last week in Colorado, state Senator Evie Hudak, a Democrat from the suburbs west of Denver, resigned her seat. This didn’t generate nearly the press that the state's two recall elections did back in September, but it was very much related.

What brought this resignation about was an attempt to recall Hudak. Opponents of hers in her district, motivated largely by her support for firearms restrictions passed last spring, were in the process of gathering enough signatures to force a recall election and appeared on the cusp of doing so. This would have been a monumental recall election for two key reasons:

1. In the wake of September’s recalls, Democrats now only control the state Senate by one seat. A successful recall of Hudak would have flipped control of the chamber, ending unified Democratic control of Colorado’s government.

2. Hudak appeared even less safe than the two senators who were recalled in September. Her district was more moderate, and she had a somewhat more liberal voting record.

This obviously put a lot of pressure on Hudak. If she failed to defeat the recall campaign, her party would suffer a major loss. But Colorado politics has an escape valve for politicians facing this kind of pressure: vacancy replacements. If a state legislator resigns during her term, party officials of her party within her district get to pick her successor. These few dozen party officials, forming what’s known as a vacancy committee, may pick essentially whomever they want to fill out the remainder of the term. Only four other states (Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, and North Dakota) have such an arrangement for their state legislatures.

Vacancy appointees are ideologically very similar to other officeholders. They may actually be slightly more ideologically extreme, but not to the point where it hurts them.

This presented an unusually stark struggle between a party and an individual politician. Here was an officeholder who no doubt felt she did the right thing in office and wanted to fight to keep her position. And yet the costs of her defeat would have been too great for her party to endure, so they clearly wanted her to step down and take one for the team. In the end, she did just that. Perhaps there will be some sort of a party payoff for her down the road—people remember when you sacrifice on their behalf—but for now, her political career has been cut short.

For those who backed Hudak's recall effort, the vacancy replacement move may be seen as unfair. They had organized with a real chance of changing control of an entire chamber of the legislature, only to see those chances vanish before their eyes. In another sense, though, the recall was directed at an individual officeholder, not an entire party. The goal of removing Hudak from office has been met.

There are usually two or three vacancy replacements in a given legislative session in Colorado. Sometimes, these occur for entirely natural reasons, such as a legislator dying or facing severe health difficulties. Other times, there are larger political objectives involved. For example, a legislator in a competitive district may be considering running for higher office, and the party may wish to replace her during her term, giving the new incumbent a chance to build some name recognition before the next election, rather than take the risk of an open seat election that can go either way.

What sorts of people tend to get picked as vacancy replacements? My co-author Boris Shor and I have been looking into this question. (Some preliminary results can be seen here.) One might think they suffer from disadvantages when they run for re-election, having made few contacts among voters during the last election cycle. Interestingly, they seem to do just about as well as other incumbents in terms of fundraising and vote-getting, suggesting that party insiders either pick very good people for the job or are very good at helping them through election season. It also looks like vacancy appointees are ideologically very similar to other officeholders. They may actually be slightly more ideologically extreme, but not to the point where it hurts them electorally.

At any rate, Hudak's resignation presumably brings an end to the latest wave of recalls, and Colorado's legislature will continue to be under unified Democratic control when it reconvenes next month. But it will do so in large part due to the existence of the unusual feature of vacancy committees.