Partisan feud erupts in West Virginia over special election for Sen. Byrd's seat


Whatever bipartisan spirit may have existed in West Virginia following the death last month of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has vanished. 

Democrats and Republicans are so at odds over legislation to change the state’s election code to allow a November special election to fill Byrd’s seat that Gov. Joe Manchin (D) may have to proclaim a special election on his own. 

From the start, the governor’s office has worried that step would open a special election to legal challenges despite the fact that the state attorney general’s office has concluded Manchin has the authority to proclaim a special election.

State lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement on a bill to change the state’s election code, and the fourth day of a special legislative session ended acrimoniously Sunday night.

Lawmakers argued the bill gave too much power to West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to control timelines for the special election, and some wanted to change the law to allow a candidate to run in the general election this November and in the special Senate election simultaneously. 

That change would have allowed Rep. Shelly Moore Capito (R) to run in the special election without having to give up her seat in the House. 

State Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio told The Hill the move is a partisan political maneuver by Republicans aimed at “taking away the rights” of West Virginia voters.

“Shame on the Republicans for turning this into a partisan vote to protect one of their own,” Puccio said in reference to Capito. “To have an individual run for two offices at the same time would confuse the citizens of West Virginia.”

“That’s greed,” he said.  

The argument from Republicans is that the state’s Democratic leadership has had a lock on the process from the start and that they have stacked the deck for Manchin. 

The original interpretation of the state’s election code from Tennant would have allowed the same candidate to run in two elections on the same day for the same Senate seat in November 2012. One would have been a special election to fill some six weeks of Byrd’s term, the other an election for a full six-year Senate term.

Republicans have said that isn’t all that different from permitting Capito to run for both reelection to the House and in a special Senate election this November. 

Asked if state law permitted a candidate to run in two elections on the same ballot as long as it was for the same office, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office said that is “one possible interpretation.”  

On Friday, Capito slammed Manchin’s selection of an interim Senator as a political maneuver meant to further Manchin’s own ambitions.

“Based on the person chosen from the rumored field of candidates to fill the U.S. Senate vacancy on an interim basis, it is once again evident that political ambition was the key factor in the selection,” Capito said in a statement. “Governor Manchin followed the same path as Florida Governor Charlie Crist did last August when he appointed his former staffer for the sole purpose of protecting his own desire to run for the U.S. Senate seat.” 

The minority leader of the state’s House of Delegates Tim Armstead (R) said in an interview with The Hill that some of the provisions of the bill championed by the governor and secretary of state are “particularly troubling.” 

Armstead also said he doesn’t see any reason the legislature needs to act quickly, noting that the Manchin already has the authority to call a special election on his own.