Less than a year after Democrats in the Massachusetts legislature voted to change the rules regarding a Senate vacancy as then-Sen. Edward Kennedy (D.-Mass.) was on the verge of death, Democrats in West Virginia are now poised to change their state rules about how to choose a successor to late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd.
In the case of the seat held by Kennedy, Democrats moved quickly to allow Democratic Gov. DeVal Patrick to appoint a successor (only five years after they took that power away from then-Republican Gov. Mitt Romney) so Democrats could have a vote in the Senate in favor of Obama’s healthcare scheme then being debated. In the case of the seat held by Byrd, Democrats are about to change the political rules for succession and hold a special election this fall instead of 2012, when Byrd’s present term would have expire. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, the state’s chief elections officer and herself a Democrat, had interpreted state law to conclude that was when the next Senate election should be held.
As to why this sudden change, the answer is simple: Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin wants to be a senator sooner rather than later. Manchin had clearly done his homework about what has happened to governors who arranged their own appointments to the Senate (voters angrily defeated them at the polls in every occasion except once in the history of popular Senate elections) so he had ruled out self-appointment. But last week, the two-term governor signaled that, despite Tennant’s ruling, he wanted a special election this year rather than in 2012.
"Manchin wants to have his cake and eat it, too," former Rep. Mick Staton, Republican county chairman of Berkeley County, told me hours after Manchin’s intentions became known. A few days later, State Atty. Gen. Darrell McGraw, also a Democrat, issued an opinion that an election could be called this year instead of 2012.
And Republicans aren’t too unhappy about this.
What Will Shelley Do?
As signs were mounting last week that Manchin desired a Senate election in this fall, State Republican Chairman Doug McKinney put out a strong statement calling on the governor to do just that. So, too, did Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the lone Republican House member from West Virginia who is unanimously regarded as her party’s best hope of winning a Senate seat.
"I said the governor should go ahead and do it and Shelley, quite honestly, came on even stronger," McKinney told me, "She said he needs to do it-we need to have an election this fall."
So now the "$64,000 question" among West Virginia GOPers is: Will Capito, five-term House member and daughter of revered former Gov. Arch Moore, Jr., actually run for the Senate against Manchin this year?
As popular as Manchin is-and his approval skyrocketed when he comforted West Virginians after the coal mine tragedy earlier this year-Republicans almost to a person feel they can elect their first senator since 1958 in this year with Capito as their candidate.
"This is the greatest chance we’ll have in a long, long time," McKinney told me. Citing his work as a practicing physician, he noted that "patients every day tell me how angry they are at the triumvirate-Obama, [Speaker Nancy] Pelosi, and [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid. They want to vote against them and if you take the Republicans, libertarians, and Tea Partiers, that’s enough votes to win." West Virginia gave its electoral votes to John McCain handily in ’08.
But here are still some questions about a fall election that won’t be answered for a while. Since the filing deadline and primaries have already been held, would the filing deadline have to be reopened and a new primary for the Senate held? Or would party conventions pick the nominee, or even the parties’ state executive committees? Would Manchin be challenged by another Democrat, possibly former West Virginia University President David Hardesty?
And could Capito legally run for the Senate while seeking re-election to her House seat, or would she have to give up her House seat to run? McKinney told me he haddiscussed that question with her father recently and said that "while we don’t have a law permitting someone to run for both the House and Senate, we don’t have a law making it illegal either."
For now, McKinney spoke for many in the West Virginia GOP when he said. "I don’t know whether Shelley will run, but we’re all praying she will."