Momentum builds toward November 2010 W.Va. special election

Democrats and Republicans in West Virginia say political momentum is moving toward a November 2010 special election to fill the late-Sen. Robert Byrd’s seat but there are several questions about how to make that happen.

“It’s a moving target at this point,” said one Democrat with knowledge of the process. “I don’t think a lot of people have really thought two or three moves down the road yet.”

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The election is set for November 2012 and several strategists believe the state legislature would have to change the law in order to move it up to November 2010.

Gov. Joe Manchin (D) has been mum about whether he will direct the state legislature to revisit the succession process during its special session, which is scheduled to begin July 19, but insiders say the political momentum for a change has reached critical mass.

Manchin did not publicly address the issue Tuesday, the same day funeral services for Byrd were held in Arlington, Va.

The governor's office said Tuesday that Manchin will make an announcement on succession process Wednesday at 11 a.m. The statement said the governor will not announce his appointment to the seat on Wednesday.

Derek Scarbro, executive director of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said the state party doesn’t have an official position on whether there should be a special election this November, but he said there is strong support for the idea from both Democrats and Republicans in the state.

“A lot of other groups have come out in favor of it now, too,” Scarbro said.

Over the past two days, interests on both sides of the aisle have called publicly for Manchin to address the process. On Monday, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce called the state’s election code “muddled” on the issue of Senate succession and asked the governor to call a special election for this November.

The state Republican Party also came out in favor of a November 2010 special election and is reviewing its legal options should it decide to launch a court challenge.

“Just about everybody appears to be getting on board with a legislative remedy at this point,” said Troy Berman, executive director of the West Virginia GOP.

As it stands now, Manchin would appoint someone to fill Byrd’s Senate seat until a special election is held in November 2012. That election would pick a candidate to fill the five weeks remaining in Byrd’s term. On the same ballot, voters would elect a candidate for a full six-year term.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D), who is still standing by her interpretation of the state’s election code, has come out in support of a November 2010 special election, but said that remedy does require the legislature to amend state law.

The West Virginia AFL-CIO called on Manchin to appoint himself to the vacant Senate seat, something Manchin has pledged not to do.

But the conventional wisdom is the popular governor will end up in the Senate.

“Everyone expects that Manchin will be the next U.S. Senator. It’s just a question of how,” said a Democratic insider in the state. “As unpalatable as having an appointment fill the seat for two plus years is to some people, it’s probably the cleanest way to handle this. But now there’s a head of steam behind having an election in November.”

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There hasn’t been an open Senate seat in West Virginia for 26 years. Byrd (D-W.Va.) was in his ninth term when he died last Monday. Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.V.) has held his seat for five terms.

Here are some possible scenarios for filling Byrd’s seat:

•  The legislature could amend the state’s election code to allow for a special election this November. Manchin would then have to decide whether to run in the fall or wait until 2012. In that case, speculated one state Democrat, Manchin would essentially be forced into running this fall.

•  That scenario also opens the door to the slim possibility that Manchin could resign as governor to run for Senate. That would potentially make the gubernatorial succession process easier. If Manchin were to remain in office while running and winning a special election this November, the process to succeed him is unclear. In the event of a vacancy, State Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D) would become acting governor but a special election for governor would be needed.

If a gubernatorial special election didn’t happen sometime between November and January, West Virginia Democrats could hypothetically begin the 2011 legislative session with Tomblin in the role of governor and Senate president.

• Manchin has also pledged to serve out his term as governor, which is up in 2012. He would have to break that pledge to run in a 2010 special election no matter if he stayed in the governor’s mansion or resigned to run. Manchin is also expected to ascend to the chairmanship of the National Governors Association at the NGA’s annual meeting at the end of this week.

• Further complicating the process is that some of the key Democrats behind the scenes of this drama — most notably Secretary of State Tennant, Tomblin and state House Speaker Richard Thompson (D) — are high on the list of candidates to replace Manchin in the governor’s office.

• Another factor complicating the process is how each party would pick its candidate – either for Senate or governor. West Virginia held its primary on May 11 so the nominee could be chosen by a state party’s executive committee, although a state party convention remains an option.

• The least likely scenario at this point, according to sources, is that the process remains unchanged and Manchin appoints someone to fill the seat until November 2012.

A November 2010 special election is undoubtedly the best case scenario for Republicans. If Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.) decided to run for Senate, insiders say a November 2010 election would offer her the best chance to beat Manchin. Capito has more than $500,000 in her federal campaign account and the confusion over the special election process would be fresh in voters’ minds and potentially easier for the GOP to use against Manchin.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats in Washington are sorely in need of another Democratic vote to move forward on tough agenda items such as financial reform and a climate bill. The problem for the Democratic leadership, though, is that it’s far from clear that a Manchin appointee or Manchin himself would support either of those efforts.


This story was originally posted at 5:28 p.m. and updated at 6:45 p.m. and 8:15 p.m.