West Virginia Election Shenanigans

All signs now point to a major rules change in West Virginia and a Senate race this year, rather than 2012, to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D.-W.Va.).

Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin signaled he wanted a special election this year. Less than a week earlier, West Virginia’s secretary of state, also a Democrat, had ruled that an appointee to fill the vacant seat could serve until the seat was up for election in 2012.

But the state attorney general (another Democrat) decided in favor of an election and Manchin named 36-year-old lawyer Carte Goodwin to fill out Byrd’s seat until the next election. The rules will soon be spelled out for nominations to the seat and the vote will take place in November.

With Manchin announcing his candidacy for the seat on Tuesday, he is certainly the odds on favorite to win. The governor’s popularity is high, according to most polls, in large part due to his role in comforting the state during mining disasters earlier this year. In addition, it is not clear at this time whether the lone Republican House member from the state, Shelley Moore Capito, will run for the Senate herself—although State GOP Chairman Doug McKinney told me last week: “We are all praying Shelley runs.”

But before Manchin starts picking out his office in a Senate Office Building, he might take note of a lesson from history: for the most part, voters don’t like governors playing games with the rules and nature of filling vacant Senate seats—and they usually show their vehemence against this game-playing with a vengeance.

“Funny Business” Over Senate Vacancies

The most recent example, of course, is that of former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois, removed from office and now on trial for trying to sell appointment to Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in return for political favors. As the trial unfolds in Chicago, there has been testimony of, among other things, a labor leader suggesting to Blagojevich that President-elect Obama would like close advisor Valerie Jarrett to fill his Senate seat and the then-governor saying she would have a better chance if Blagojevich is named secretary of Health and Human Services.

So it was no surprise that when the embattled governor finally appointed former state Atty. Gen. Roland Burris to the seat, there was a furor over whether or not Burris should even be seated. He eventually was but early hints he might run for a full term were quickly demolished by angry voter reaction. Burris will simply serve out the remainder of Obama’s term until 2012.

When Republican Sen. Frank Murkowski was elected governor of Alaska in 2002, he went through the motions of interviewing prospective appointees to the Senate seat he was relinquishing. But in the end, he chose someone that knocked the wind out of politicians in both parties in Alaska: his daughter Lisa Murkowski, a state representative. Frank Murkowski never really recovered from the cries of “nepotism” and the law was changed to require an immediate special election to fill a Senate vacancy instead of a gubernatorial appointment. In ’06, Murkowski came in third in the Republican primary for governor that was won by Sarah Palin, who made an issue of the “Father Knows Best” Senate appointment. Lisa Murkowski did win a term of her own in the Republican year of ’04, but faces a strong primary challenge this fall.

In winning a landslide re-election as governor of Nebraska in 1994, Democrat Ben Nelson promised—in writing, in fact—to serve out his term if re-elected and not run for a Senate seat. But two years later, when senator and fellow Democrat James J. Exon announced his retirement, Nelson did just that and declared for the Senate. Republican nominee Chuck Hagel used that issue against Nelson, and then-State GOP Chairman Chuck Sigerson was a virtual attack dog as he told voters “if you can’t trust Nelson to keep his word when he puts it in writing, you can’t trust him on anything.”

Hagel won—and Nelson’s popularity as governor had been in the 70-percentage range, just as Manchin’s is today.

“Do It Yourself” Doesn’t Work

On nine occasions since 1933, governors have resigned their office and arranged for their successors to name them to Senate vacancies. In every case but one, they have gone on to lose resoundingly at the polls the next time voters have a crack at them. (The one exception was that of Democrat A.B. “Happy” Chandler of Kentucky, who arranged his own appointment to the Senate in 1939, won a special election the following year, and a full term in 1942. Chandler, grandfather of present Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky, resigned from the Senate in 1945 to become commissioner of baseball).

Manchin is clearly aware of this history lesson. As he was calling for a special election this year, the governor assured voters he would not appoint himself to succeed Byrd.

But in making it clear he wants a Senate election now instead of 2012—and leading his fellow Democratic officials to over-rule an earlier ruling to the contrary—Joe Manchin may well have made a move that is self-serving and arrogant. And that may be the issue that defeats the man now seen as a cinch to be senator from West Virginia this fall.