A state Democratic-sponsored bill would require holding an election within 90 to 180 days of a vacancy affecting any of North Carolina’s U.S. senators.
A state law passed in June 2018 by the Republican super-majority in the General Assembly changed from allowing the governor to select the replacement from the political party of the senator, to the governor having to choose between three candidates recommended by the senator’s political party.
That opens the potential for the party to submit only one viable option.
If the vacancy occurs less than 60 days before the next general election, the appointed senator would serve until facing election in the subsequent general election, which could be up to 26 months.
Senate Bill 868 was filed Friday by Sens. Jay Chaudhuri, Wiley Nickel and Sam Searcy, all from Wake County.
Chaudhuri and Nickel acknowledge Wednesday the political plight facing Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr spurred the timing of filing SB868.
Burr, of Winston-Salem, appears to be the only U.S. senator remaining under a federal investigation of stock trades made in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Burr is facing bipartisan calls for him to resign his Senate seat, including from Chaudhuri and Nickel.
“There certainly is a concern that one of our U.S. senators may resign,” Nickel said.
If Burr were to resign before Sept. 4, then a new election could be held as part of the general election Nov. 3, and the winner would serve the remaining two years of the six-year term.
In that scenario, both of North Carolina’s U.S. Senate seats would be on the ballot since Republican Sen. Thom Tillis is running for re-election vs. Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham.
“This bill would assure that no one could essentially steal a seat to the U.S. Senate,” Nickel said.
“North Carolinians should always hold the power to pick their elected representatives” in the event of a vacancy, whether by resignation or death.
The last time North Carolina had a U.S. Senate vacancy was in June 1986 when Republican Sen. John East, who was not seeking re-election, committed suicide.
Republican Gov. Jim Martin appointed Jim Broyhill, who already was the GOP nominee for the seat, as senator. Broyhill was defeated in the November 1986 election by Democrat Terry Sanford.
Chaudhuri and Nickel said they believe the current succession format “represents another form of voter suppression by Republicans in the legislature.”
Pat Ryan, a spokesman for Senate leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said that “it’s puzzling that Sen. Chaudhuri would introduce legislation on the last day of session changing the process he himself voted for just two years ago.”
“In any event, filing a bill on the last day of session is not a good way to get it passed, so this appears to be more about publicity than substance.”
Senate financial-disclosure documents show Burr and his wife, Brooke, sold between $628,000 and $1.72 million of their stock holdings in 33 separate transactions on Feb. 13.
Burr resigned as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee on May 14, a day after FBI agents seized his cellphone from his home.
Burr also is facing pressure following disclosures that he gave a stark warning about COVID-19 at a Feb. 27 private event that he has not repeated publicly. Burr’s comments carry significant weight in part because he is author of the federal Pandemic All-Hazards Preparedness Act of 2006.
Burr told McClatchy News Service on May 14 that he plans to serve the remaining 2½ years of his term. During his 2016 campaign, he said he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2022.
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Burr. There has been no public update on the investigation since late May.
“There is a special place in hell for those who betray their country in a time of crisis,” Nickel said.
With the Republicans holding a 53-47 margin in the U.S. Senate, analysts say Trump and Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., could pressure Burr to resign after Sept. 4 so to give his replacement the advantages of incumbency going into the 2022 election.
Chaudhuri and Nickel acknowledge the odds are slim that the Republican legislative leaders would take up SB868. Chaudhuri said he reached out to Republicans about the legislation during the recent session.
“It’s important to keep this issue alive, and I’m going to use every procedural trick I can to force debate on this issue,” Nickel said. “Frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”
Nickel stressed the state’s U.S. senators should be under the same vacancy guidelines as its U.S. House members, where a special election is held.
Chaudhuri said having up to 180 days to hold a special election is “sufficient enough time” to undergo the nomination process for both parties.