The most asked political question from West Virginia to Washington on Monday was when the Mountain State would hold a special election to fill the seta of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.)—either this November or in 2012, when the Byrd’s current and ninth term would expire.
Late Monday afternoon, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant answered that question when she announced that an election to fill the seat that Byrd held for 42 years would be in 2012 rather than this fall.
Although there was speculation that Democrats such as Tennant and Gov. Joe Manchin did not want to run the risk of their state electing a Republican senator in 2010 (which looks increasingly like a Republican year), even the state GOP chairman agreed that Tennant was properly following the state election code in calling for the election later rather than sooner.
“She was correct,” State Republican Chairman Doug McKinney told me while he was driving to a GOP county executive committee last night. State law calls for a special election to fill a Senate vacancy if more than two years and six months remained of the unexpired term and Byrd’s current term was to end on January 3, 2012—meaning that the vacancy was coming precisely six days before the threshold date.
However, as McKinney explained, the secretary of state cited Section 3-10-3 of the State Election Code, which also says a special election shall be held after a filing deadline and primaries were held. As the GOP chief put it, “We had our primary in May and the next filing deadline and primary are not scheduled until 2012.”
So what happens next? The worst-kept secret in West Virginia is that two-term Gov. Joe Manchin covets going to the U.S. Senate. “Termed out” of the governorship in 2012, the timing of the Byrd succession works perfectly for him. Now Manchin will most likely appoint a caretaker senator—possibly State Democratic Chairman and close friend Larry Puccio—who will serve out the remainder of Byrd’s term but not run in 2012, thus setting the state for a Manchin candidacy. The governor could also resign his current office, and then have his successor, State Senate President Earl Ray Tomlin, appoint him (Manchin) to the Senate. But almost no one in West Virginia believes this will happen, given the history of voters angrily defeating governors who orchestrate their own appointment to the Senate.
The last time that happened was in 1976, when then-Minnesota Gov. Wendell Anderson stage-manged his own appointment to the Senate seat of Vice President-elect Walter Mondale but lost in a landslide to Republican Rudy Boschwitz in ’78.
McKinney and other Republicans I spoke to made little secret of their hope that Tennant would have called an election this year. West Virginia went strongly for George W. Bush in ’04 and John McCain in ’08 and, as a coal industry lobbyist from the state told me this morning, “there is a strong feeling among West Virginians that the Obama Administration, with cap and trade among other things, wants to destroy their economy.”
Referring to popular Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, McKinney told me, “Shelley is our shining star, all right. I’d love to see her run for anything.” The daughter of revered former Republican Gov. Arch Moore and the lone Republican in West Virginia’s congressional delegation, Capito would have been a strong contender in 2010 and will be strong in 2012—if she decides to run.
“I would have preferred to have the special election this year,” McKinney admitted. “Democrats clearly hope the climate will be much better for them in 2012. But, if the administration and the Democrats in Congress keep doing what they are doing, the climate could easily be better for us in two years.”