Rockefeller decision sparks Senate scramble
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - For 25 years, West Virginia had the same two Democratic U.S. senators, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, who put a glass ceiling on other politicians' rise to power.
Byrd died in 2010 and Rockefeller, 75, announced Friday he would not seek a sixth term in 2014.
Now, as they did when Byrd died, Democrats and Republicans across the state are eyeing the political ladder to Washington.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced in late November she would run for Senate with or without Rockefeller on the ballot.
With Rockefeller out, Democrats are floating their names, working the phones and figuring out what it will take to challenge the formidable Capito.
"Everybody I know thinks Shelley Capito is well positioned and well liked, and she is working hard and she has an infrastructure in place and she is clearly the frontrunner," said state Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts.
In the five most recent Senate races in West Virginia, the winner has spent an average of $5.1 million, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
(Though perhaps nothing matches the $10 million Rockefeller pulled from his own pocket to beat Republican John Raese in 1984 to win his first Senate term.)
Capito can raise money. On the day she announced she would run for Senate, her campaign raised more $100,000, The Washington Post reported. The leaders of the state Coal Association and Chamber attended her Senate run announcement, a sign of where they leaned.
There may also be considerable spending from outside groups. When Raese faced off against then-Gov. Joe Manchin to fill Byrd's unexpired term in 2010, outside groups spent nearly $11 million to try to swing the race, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
A major question now is, What Democrat can attract this kind of money against Capito?
No Democrats have declared their intentions firmly, but numerous names were mentioned and traditional Democratic Party factions were beginning their hunt for a contender.
There is also some effort to make sure the new senator is a reliable vote on traditional Democratic issues. Rockefeller's colleague, Manchin, D-W.Va., is perhaps not that reliable vote.
In 2009-2010, for instance, Rockefeller fought hard for the health care reform law, which many Democrats strongly supported. Manchin, then governor, danced around the issue and, during his Senate run, called for its partial repeal.
"I know it's not particularly popular in West Virginia, but, frankly that's OK," Rockefeller said during his announcement Friday at the state Culture Center in Charleston.
Elaine Harris, an international representative for the Communications Workers of America, was one of few in the West Virginia political world to get advanced notice Thursday night that Rockefeller would retire.
She said the senator did not waver on issues important to unions during his career.
"Without hesitation, he's been there fighting the tough fights and when he's up for the right thing, he will fight," Harris said.
Possible candidates to replace Rockefeller include current Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. A spokesman said the congressman is considering a Senate run.
"Jay's decision has made it incumbent upon me to recalibrate all my decisions in terms of what is in the best interests of the people of West Virginia," Rahall said in a brief statement.
If Rahall goes for the Senate seat, he would put a Democratic-controlled House seat in play.
Rahall's 2012 challenger, former Delegate Rick Snuffer, and a new state senator from the area, Bill Cole, are Republicans who could run for House in that district, with or without Rahall in the race.
Former U.S. Sen. Carte Goodwin said Friday he was drawn to public service and flattered that his name was being discussed. Goodwin filled four months of Byrd's unexpired term in 2010 before the state held an election to send Manchin to the Senate.
Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said she is considering a Senate campaign.
"I will seriously look at it," she said. "I haven't ruled anything in and anything out."
Tennant's husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, has previously said he might run for Capito's current House seat. Tennant has also expressed recent interest in running again for governor in 2016. In 2011, she lost a special Democratic primary for governor. Both Tennant and Wells have run successful shoestring campaigns.
Some Democrats are talking about former Gov. Gaston Caperton making a Senate run as well. He recently moved back to the state, but said in December he was not interested in Capito's House seat. He did not return an email seeking comment.
Other floating names include state Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis, a Democrat who was just elected to another 12-year term on the court. She would have to resign her seat on the bench if she decided to run for Senate because of judicial ethics.
Former state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Callaghan said last month he would consider running for Rockefeller's seat or Capito's House seat.
While Capito is considered a frontrunner, Democrats do not believe she is unbeatable. First elected in 2000, Capito fought some expensive races early in her career but faced only token opposition from Democrats in 2010 and 2012.
The Democrats in those races, who had very little money, were likely unable to pay for opposition research that most campaigns typically use to attack the other side and both Democrats were certainly unable to buy a significant amount of advertising.
Because of that, Democrats believe there may be a path not taken against Capito: highlighting her votes in the House that Democrats believe can be made unpopular in West Virginia. Some of those votes had not happened in her early races.
"It's not going to be easy for her at all," said former state Democratic Party Chairman Pat Maroney. "She is going to have to explain her position on issues."
Maroney said some votes in the Republican House would not play well with seniors or single mothers.
Republicans have argued West Virginia is trending Republican. The state House now has 46 Republicans, the most since the Great Depression, for instance. But Democrats still point to their majorities in the state House and Senate - as well as their majorities on the Supreme Court and among the other statewide offices, including that of the governor - as signs the Republican wave is not overtaking the beach.
Capito also could receive competition from within her own party. Congressman David McKinley, a Republican who represents the northern portion of West Virginia, indicated to MetroNews and other news outlets like the Intelligencer in Wheeling that he is considering a run for Senate.
"I have told them (Republican leaders) I am, right now, watching to see what happens with Shelley, how well she continues to maintain a fiscal policy that is good for this country," McKinley said. "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."