With the passing of West Virginia's iconic Sen. Robert C. Byrd
Monday at the age of 92, speculation regarding his likely successor has already begun.
With 2010 looking like a Republican year, it is probably not terribly surprising that on Monday, Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant announced a rather bizarre succession plan
: In November of 2012, West Virginia will hold two elections: A special election to fill the unexpired term of Sen. Byrd, as well as a primary and general election for a new six-year Senate term. It is unclear whether Republicans will challenge the ruling.
Whoever wins the special election will serve only two months, from November 2012 until January 2012 -- unless the same person who wins the special election also wins the general election.
One cynical theory to explain the succession plan: Delaying the special election to fill Byrd's seat is mutually beneficial to both Gov. Joe Manchin and Secretary of State Tennant. Had Manchin appointed himself to fill Byrd's seat this year, the state Senate president would have automatically become governor, thereby making it more difficult for Tennant to win that seat herself later.
Out of respect for Sen. Byrd's legacy and his family, Gov. Manchin plans to wait until after a Byrd memorial before appointing someone to fill the majority of Byrd's unexpired term. It's probable that the appointee will be a mere Democratic placeholder (Manchin has said he won't appoint himself
, so he is likely to select Nick Casey, Democratic Party and chairman and close ally, or possibly even his wife
-- whom he has appointed to state boards -- to keep the seat warm for Manchin until 2012.)
It is then expected that Manchin -- who already has set up a federal PAC
in anticipation of the vacant seat -- would, himself, run for U.S. Senate in 2012.
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. Had the election taken place in 2010, it's even possible that an unknown candidate could surprise everyone.
But David Avella, a Republican strategist and executive director of GOPAC, with a history in West Virginia, disagrees, telling me that 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."
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. She would be very formidable," says Avella.
Largely viewed as a moderate, Capito represents the 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 benefits from 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 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. The decision to wait until 2012 to hold the election probably increases the likelihood Capito would opt for an open run at governor, as opposed to running against Manchin.
I'm told other potential Republican candidates will wait to see what Capito does. Should she decline to run in 2012, the early list of possible candidates includes Delegate Patrick Lane, Delegate Troy Andes, or former Secretary of State Betty Ireland.