Six retirements and a Republican wave that ousted five incumbents in November cost Connecticut its place with the majority party in Washington. But the turnover has lifted up Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy from their previous standings near the bottom of the seniority list in the U.S. Senate.
Blumenthal and Murphy have jumped from their respective rankings of 83rd and 92nd in Senate seniority in the 113th Congress to 68th and 77th in the 114th.
In 2010, the last year that former senators Chris Dodd and Joe Lieberman served together, Connecticut had more combined seniority than all but three other states — Massachusetts, Hawaii, and Iowa.
In 2013, the first year Blumenthal and Murphy served together, Connecticut’s seniority was worse than all but three states — Massachusetts and Hawaii, which suffered a similar loss of veteran senators, and North Dakota.
Blumenthal first entered the Senate in 2011 at 98th in seniority, replacing Dodd, who was 11th. Murphy entered at 92nd, replacing Lieberman, who was 20th. But they’ve moved up the ranks faster than expected.
“It’s hugely important,” Blumenthal said. “Seniority is the coin of the realm.”
Assuming Blumenthal runs for and wins re-election in 2016, Connecticut could move higher. Longtime California Sen. Barbara Boxer already has announced her retirement, and other incumbents could follow suit or face competitive races. And Connecticut’s clout could increase significantly if Democrats regain the Senate in 2016, as some are predicting. There are more than twice as many Republican-held seats in play than those held by Democratic incumbents, and half a dozen are in states that were won by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Committee assignments are a key area in which more seniority can pay off. Murphy was recently appointed to the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, rare for a freshman senator. It’s the first time in 30 years that Connecticut has had a seat at that table. Murphy also serves on the Foreign Relations and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committees.
Blumenthal, one of half a dozen former state attorneys general in the Senate, serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senate Armed Services and Commerce, and is now the most senior Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
Blumenthal said his ascension to ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Committee already is paying off, making passage of his bill aimed at preventing veteran suicides possible early this year. He expects it to be one of the first pieces of legislation in the new Congress to be delivered to the president’s desk for signature.
The defeat and/or retirement of 10 Senate Democrats in November created a domino effect that put Blumenthal in the right place on that committee. Others who would have been ahead of him in line decided to jump to committees they thought would be more beneficial to their home states or more in line with their interests.
Scott McLean, a political science professor at Quinnipiac University, said Friday that traditional seniority is less important than it used to be in the U.S. Senate. It’s now a place where freshmen senators such as Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rand Paul of Kentucky can have an impact by building a national profile around certain issues.
“The rise of our two senators is to me a case study in how the senate has changed in the last 20 years, and especially the last 10. What’s changed is that committee chairs don’t have so much power as they used to. The leadership has the power and calls the shots,” McLean said. “Blumenthal and Murphy, fortuitously, lucky for us, are the perfect kind of politicians in that environment, to move up quickly. They both are very good at going on television and making dramatic appeals to help consumers and the little guy. They get on television a lot compared to other senators.”
Blumenthal continues to champion the consumer advocate causes he was known for as Connecticut’s popular attorney general, while Murphy, perhaps more than any other member of Congress, took up the push for stronger gun control laws after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School happened in between his election to the U.S. Senate and swearing-in.
In addition to moving up in seniority on key committees, Blumenthal said he’s gotten to know the rules of the Senate and the capacity he has to help Connecticut by influencing and working with federal agencies and departments.
McLean said all of that is helping Connecticut regain some of the clout it lost with the retirements Dodd and Lieberman.
“We did lose a lot when those two left, and we lost a lot when the the Democrats lost control of the Senate,” McLean said. “(But) the Senate isn’t like the House, in that senators are very influential regardless of whether their party controls that body.”
Blumenthal’s place in Senate seniority is hurt and Murphy’s is helped by their careers prior to being elected.
Blumenthal entered the Senate with a freshmen class of 13 in 2011, but his seniority is 11th out of that group because prior service in the U.S. Congress is weighted first, followed by former governors, and then by the population of the state you represent. Blumenthal’s freshman class included Dan Coats, a former senator rejoining the body, five U.S. House members moving up, former Nebraska Gov. John Hoeven, and three senators elected from larger states than Connecticut — Florida, Wisconsin, and Kentucky.
Murphy was fourth in seniority out of his freshman class of 12 in 2013, thanks to his three terms in the House prior to being elected.
Despite being in the minority party, Connecticut also has gained more clout in the U.S. House of Representatives with Rep. Rosa DeLauro moving up from 41st to 29th in seniority. Rep. John Larson moved from 116th to 91st, Rep. Joe Courtney from 212th to 170th, Rep. Jim Himes from 245th to 202nd, and Rep. Elizabeth Esty from 384th to 324th.