Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) announced Friday that he will not run for reelection in 2014, giving Republicans a prime pickup opportunity in a state that's grown increasingly red in recent years.
“As I approach 50 years of public service in West Virginia, I’ve decided that 2014 will be the right moment for me to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in and to spend more time with my incredible family," Rockefeller said in a statement.
Republicans already have their top recruit in place for the race. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) threw her hat in the ring late last year, and is considered the front-runner for the seat, should she survive what could be a tough GOP primary.
National Republican Senatorial Committee Executive Director Rob Collins said West Virginia is an "even stronger pickup opportunity" now that Rockefeller has stepped aside.
The chairman of the state’s Republican Party, Conrad Lucas, noted that Mitt Romney took nearly two-thirds of the state’s presidential vote last year.
"West Virginia Democrats have continued to align themselves with President Obama and his policies, which are toxic in this state," Lucas told The Hill.
"Anyone who the Democrat Party puts up for the Senate seat in 2014 is going to have to explain their views and how they differ from Obama, and I don't see how they'll be able to do that."
But Democrats have some hope that the seat can remain in their column.
West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio told The Hill that Democrats "won 67 percent of all of the races in the state" in the 2012 cycle, and said that the presidential vote may be deceiving.
"We really go a lot by facts, we believe a lot in facts instead of forecasting. We think folks are still voting for Democrats," he said.
Despite the increasingly red tint of West Virginia, the state hasn’t elected a Republican senator since 1956. Rockefeller’s decision to retire now, at the very start of the election cycle, gives Democrats plenty of time to mount a defense.
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), who is tasked with recruiting Senate candidates as chairman of the chamber's campaign committee, acknowledged the challenge that Democrats face in West Virginia. He said the party would look for an “independent-minded Democrat" to run for the seat.
"For more than a generation, Senator Rockefeller has been a dedicated public servant, a brilliant legislator, and a loyal colleague in the U.S. Senate. While we will greatly miss him in our caucus, I am confident we can elect an independent-minded Democrat to his seat next November.
"Democrats maintain nearly a two to one voter registration advantage over Republicans in West Virginia and I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state," Bennet said.
No Democrat has officially announced his or her intentions to run for the Senate seat, but a few top recruits have already expressed interest.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) is considering it, according to a spokeswoman, and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant told The Hill on Friday that she is "seriously considering" a run.
"I haven't ruled anything in or out. I would seriously consider it," Tennant said.
A few other possible contenders have also left the door open. Former state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Callaghan has reportedly indicated an interest, and West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis told The Hill on Friday that she was "not ruling out" a bid.
"I will weigh this situation like I do everything in my career, with well-reasoned consideration. I won't count out any options," she said.
The possible candidate that Democrats in the state see as the likely frontrunner is still silent about a bid.
Former Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-W.Va), who briefly served in the upper chamber after the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va), would likely jump to the head of the pack if he entered, but he has not given any indication he plans to do so. Goodwin did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill.
Puccio told the Hill that he plans to require all candidates to sign a pledge promising to back the candidate that emerges victorious from the primary, something he required during the special election to replace then-Gov. Joe Manchin, who resigned to run for the Senate.
A divided primary could prove problematic for Democrats, leaving them with a weakened candidate for the general election. But Puccio said he hopes requiring the candidates to pledge their support to the eventual nominee will strengthen the party for the general.
Two West Virginia Democrats have already taken themselves out of the running. Mike Plante, campaign consultant to State House Speaker Rick Thompson (D), told The Hill that the lawmaker has no plans to run in 2014.
"Rick is very flattered that people have mentioned his name in connection with Sen. Rockefeller's seat, but he's not interested in running for U.S. Senate," Plante said.
Former Gov. Bob Wise also told The Hill in a statement that he is focusing on his job as president of the Alliance for Excellent Education.
“While I appreciate even being mentioned in the same breath as Sen. Rockefeller, I want to stay involved in my long-running campaign to make sure that far more of America’s children finish high school ready for college and career. My current campaign is where I can best serve and continue some of the important parts of Sen. Rockefeller’s work.”
Rockefeller is in his fifth term and was first elected to the Senate in 1984. The 75-year-old senator had long been considered a retirement risk for Democrats. Speculation about his plans mounted last June when he blasted the coal industry — the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy — for resisting greenhouse gas regulations.
“It’s not too late for the coal industry to step up and lead by embracing the realities of today and creating a sustainable future. Discard the scare tactics. Stop denying science,” Rockefeller said from the Senate floor.
Rockefeller’s retirement could be the break that Capito needs to make the leap to the Senate after years of waiting.
But she won't have an easy walk to the GOP nomination. On the first day of her candidacy, Capito received criticism from two conservative groups known for mounting primary challenges against establishment-backed Republicans: Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
The Senate Conservatives Fund (SCF) reiterated its opposition to Capito on Friday, with Executive Director Matt Hoskins saying in a statement that the group will not "stop looking for a conservative challenger in this race until the primary is over."
Hoskins said the group is hoping other Republican candidates will emerge in the weeks ahead.
"Capito's decision to run was not an act of courage. She's had many opportunities to run before, but never did. This time was different because she knew, like everyone else, that Rockefeller was going to retire. She announced early because she wanted to clear the field. It may work, but we're hoping principled folks in West Virginia will answer the call and run for this critical U.S. Senate seat.
"This is one of the most conservative states in the country and the voters deserve someone who truly represents their values," Hoskins said.
Though few other names have emerged for the Republican nomination, Rep. David McKinley (R ) said during an interview with local radio on Wednesday that "if she is not going to be that fiscal hawk that is going to make sure that we get our spending under control, then we’ll find another candidate."
Businessman and perennial candidate John Raese could also challenge Capito. He has run for the GOP nomination for Senate four times prior, including in 2012, and may have a slight familial rivalry with Capito — he was defeated by her father, Gov. Arch Moore, in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1988.
SCF backed Raese in 2010, but did not support his bid in 2012.
— Ben Geman contributed to this story.
This story was first posted at 9:39 a.m. and has been updated.