I first became interested in the United States Senate in the fourth week of January, 2005.
Perhaps you wonder why my memory of this is so precise. Part of the answer is autobiographical. My grandfather, who I was very close to, died mid-January, right before I was preparing to leave for London. I was looking forward to being a teaching assistant and resident assistant for our freshman honor’s program. While the week days were intense and filled with fun, as my colleague Heather May and I scoured suitable museums, cathedrals, and galleries for our students. But the weekends, I have to confess, were tough. We were expected to be on-hand at our guesthouse to help out the 25 students in our charge, and with wi-fi still in its infancy, it was easy to get bored or distracted when our services weren’t needed. Still missing my grandfather, and not having had enough time to process his death before flying across the ocean, I channeled my grief and my surplus of free time into memorizing things. It’s a bad- and rather peculiar- habit of mine, but it’s how my mind works.
At first, I memorized who every state voted for in every presidential election. This was surprisingly mundane (many states regularly voted for one party for decades on end). So I started memorizing who the senators were from each state. And from that day forward, I kept abreast of politics- not perfectly, and certainly not in a way that would make me an expert or policy wonk- but it was a hobby that became useful to my line of work as a historian of religion and politics.
Since then, I’ve seen the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008, Tea Party Thermidors of 2010 and 2014. In those twelve years, a number of giants left the Senate- Ted Kennedy, Robert Byrd, Richard Lugar, Daniel Inouye, Joe Biden, Ted Stevens. Some came and went in those years: Mark Udall, Mark Begich, Scott Brown, Kay Hagan, Kelly Ayotte, Mark Kirk. And plenty of new faces arrived. It’s very conceivable that twenty years from now, Mike Lee, Chris Murphy, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ted Cruz, Tom Cotton, and Martin Heinrich will still be plugging away.
Since so much time has passed, it made me wonder: what does it take to be a senator? In other words, what common experiences show up on their resumes? Is it necessary to go to an Ivy League school? To what extent does heritage matter? So, I spent one weekend running the numbers on the senators who served from January 2005 onwards. I kept this limited to people who had won an election of some kind– so I left out temporary appointments like Jeffrey Chisea, Roland Burris, Carte Goodwin, Paul Kirk, and others.
Ultimately, there were 179 senators who fell into this rubric. Some initial stats that I found interesting:
- Only 31 were women.
- Almost that number- 24- ran for president at some point in their careers. Don’t believe me? Here’s the list: Barack Obama, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Chris Dodd, Tom Harkin, Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, John Kerry, Bernie Sanders, Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Lincoln Chafee, Jim Webb, Ted Cruz, Lamar Alexander, Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter, Rick Santorum, Lindsey Graham, Liz Dole, Sam Brownback, Richard Lugar, and Joe Lieberman. Granted, many of these candidacies went nowhere and many dropped out before Iowa, but there seems to be some truth to the adage that every senator sees a president in the mirror.
- 7 ended up being on a presidential ticket at some point in their careers: Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Tim Kaine, and Joe Lieberman. (That number is a little low because we have only had one Republican senator on a presidential ticket in the last five cycles.)
- Maybe more troubling, only 14 identify their ethnicity as something other than white: Kamala Harris, Tim Scott, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Cory Booker, Barack Obama, Catherine Cortez Masto, Bob Menendez, Mazie Hirono, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Mel Martinez, Tammy Duckworth, and Ken Salazar.
- 10 of them have passed on since I started the project: Robert Byrd, Ted Kennedy, Frank Lautenberg, Ted Stevens, Arlen Spector, Craig Thomas, Daniel Inouye, Bob Bennett, George Voinovich, and Jim Jeffords.
But aside from the trivia, what kind of background does it take to get into the Senate? Here’s what I found out:
- The best thing you can do is serve in the House first. 84- nearly half of all those listed- had done so. That makes a certain amount of sense; serving in the House increases your familiarity with issues of a national scope and is a good way to build a relationship of trust with your constituents.
- Almost as many- 70- served in a state legislature at some earlier point in their careers.
- Governors tend not to graduate to the Senate: only 18 had done so, and 5 were from states that have unusual rules affecting their governors (Virginia prohibits them from serving consecutive terms. So, George Allen, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine all decided to run for the Senate, since there was nowhere else to go. New Hampshire requires governors to be elected every two years- a hassle that may have inspired Judd Gregg and Maggie Hassan to run for the Senate, where you are only up for election every six years.)
- Mayors are even more rare in the Senate- there have only been 14 of them in the last 12 years. A few led major cities: Richard Lugar from Indianapolis, Cory Booker from Newark, George Voinovich from Cleveland. But there are some strikingly small cities as well: Burlington, VT (Bernie Sanders), Warwick, RI (Lincoln Chafee), and even Gillette, Wyoming (Mike Enzi).
- About a third- 55 of the 179- have earned a degree from a very prestigious school. (For the purposes of this exercise, that means Ivy League, Stanford, or Georgetown).
- And it doesn’t hurt to take relatives in politics. 29 of them are scions of some sort, with a parent, sibling, or spouse who held a major office of some kind.
- 45 served in the military. Unsurprisingly, this was more common with the older senators: Frank Lautenberg, Daniel Inouye, Daniel Akaka, Ted Stevens all served in World War II. In the last two years, the Senate has acquired its first two female veterans: Joni Ernst and Tammy Baldwin.
- Five had served in the cabinet before becoming a senator. Strangely, all of them are Republicans: Liz Dole (Transportation and Labor), Mel Martinez (HUD), Mike Johanns (Agriculture), Rob Portman (U.S. Trade Rep- a cabinet level position), and Lamar Alexander (Education.)
- Even weirder, eight have medical degrees of some kind- and all of them are also Republicans! That includes Bill Frist (cardio surgeon), John Boozman (optometrist), Rand Paul (ophthalmologist), Wayne Allard and John Ensign (veterinarians), Bill Cassidy (primary care physician), John Barrasso (orthopedics), and Tom Coburn (obstetrician).
And, of course, lots of other paths to the Senate exist. You might hold another prominent state office: secretary of state, treasurer, attorney general, lieutenant governor, or auditor. We also have a former astronaut (Bill Nelson), a university president (Ben Sasse), an ambassador (Dan Coats), a first lady (Hillary Clinton), a comedy writer (Al Franken), and a professional baseball player (Jim Running.)
Of course, these are just the numbers- and this is far from a qualitative study. I’ve only looked at the Senate as a whole, with no concern- yet- for how effective or conscientious the senator at hand may be.
So, while you don’t need to have a famous father or a Harvard degree to make it to the Senate. But it never hurts either. However you get there, remember this quote from the great Hubert Humphrey: “the Senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions. And if the road to Hell is paved with them, then it’s a pretty good detour.”