With the death of West Virginia's iconic Sen. Robert C. Byrd
on Monday at the age of 92, speculation regarding his likely successor has already begun.
As of now, it is still unclear
whether or not West Virginia's governor, Joe Manchin, a Democrat, will appoint a candidate to fill out the remainder of Byrd's term (which would expire in 2012) -- or if he will instead be required to hold a special election this November. West Virginia's secretary of state plans to conduct a press conference at 4:30 p.m. with details.
It's impossible to know what will be announced, but with 2010 looking like a Republican year, it is clear that Democrats hope to avoid a November special election, and most likely, Manchin will be able to appoint a Democratic placeholder to keep the seat warm for Manchin until 2012. He has said he won't appoint himself
, so he will likely select either his wife, Gayle
-- whom he has appointed to state boards -- or Nick Casey, the outgoing state Democratic Party chairman
and a close ally. Casey resigned due to a pending appointment to be a federal judge.
It is then expected that Manchin -- who reportedly already has set up a federal PAC in anticipation of the vacant seat -- would, himself, run for U.S. Senate.
Republicans who believe GOP presidential success in the Mountain State (John McCain won in 2008 with 56 percent of the vote) will automatically translate into GOP electoral success in the U.S. Senate are most likely overly optimistic. True, President Barack Obama's approval ratings
in West Virginia are abysmal, but that was also the case for the PA-12, where Democrat Mark Critz recently won a special election
to fill Jack Murtha's congressional seat.
If Scott Brown can win Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, of course, anything is possible, including the notion a Republican could succeed Robert C. Byrd. Even West Virginia is not immune to the zeitgeist. For example, Rep. Alan Mollihan recently lost
a bid for his 15th
term in a primary. Should the election take place in 2010, it's even possible that an unknown candidate could surprise everyone.
But if, as is likely, the election shifts to 2012, the smart money would tend to favor popular and socially conservative
Manchin, who gained national exposure during West Virginia's recent coal mining disasters
. As Public Policy Polling wrote Monday
, "If Manchin runs it's hard to see Democrats losing the seat."
But David Avella, a Republican strategist and executive director of GOPAC, who has a history with West Virginia politics, disagrees, telling me Manchin, "is beatable, particularly if he is going to run in 2012. He will have to defend a set of policies out of the Obama administration that has done more to hurt the energy related industries in West Virginia than to help them." It is here that the PA-12 analogy falls apart. Mark Kritz didn't have to run on the same ticket as Obama. Should he wait until 2012, Manchin would have to do so.
West Virginia is traditionally a parochial state, not prone to electing outsiders. As such, the candidate Republicans are pinning their hopes on is Shelley Moore Capito
, the state's only Republican member of Congress. "She just has that star power that few West Virginia politicians have," Avella said. "She would be very formidable."
Largely viewed as a moderate, Capito represents the gerrymandered 2nd
District of West Virginia, a gerrymandered district stretching from the Ohio River to the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia (virtually a suburb of the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area). Because of the odd lines of her district, Capito is well known statewide, and is benefited by representing a diverse constituency, ranging from Appalachian coal miners to D.C. commuters.
Capito is the daughter of Arch Moore, a scandal-plagued former West Virginia governor who decided against challenging Byrd, himself, in the 1970s.
Sources I spoke to confirmed Capito is weighing her options, but is seriously considering a run for either the U.S. Senate or for governor in 2012.
I'm told other potential Republican candidates will wait to see what Capito does. Should she decline to run, the list of possible candidates includes Delegate Patrick Lane, Delegate Troy Andes or former Secretary of State Betty Ireland.