CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia's House of Delegates faces a momentous decision after Speaker Rick Thompson departs for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Cabinet: choosing a new leader will help set the stage for 2014, when Republicans aim to wipe out the Democrats' ebbing majority.
With Thompson slated to resign next month to head the Department of Veterans Assistance, Tomblin's ability to advance his legislative priorities may be tested once delegates elect a speaker.
The midterm election prospects have Minority Leader Tim Armstead looking at ways the House might end up with a GOP speaker. November gains increased his party's ranks to 46 of 100 seats, its largest share in decades. The Kanawha County Republican plans to emphasize his caucus' as-yet-unsuccessful push for such measures as an intermediate appeals court and a constitutional amendment targeting non-real estate property taxes.
"Unfortunately, the (current) leadership has been unwilling to put those issues to a vote," Armstead said. "If there's a Democratic speaker, unless they're much more willing to adopt many more of the programs that the Republicans have been fighting for, I don't see the people of West Virginia embracing them."
Armstead's chances rely on peeling away just a handful of Democrats. But that failed to happen when battles during the recent regular session came down to close roll call votes. GOP attempts to amend or derail Democratic proposals were routinely rebuffed during the 60 days. The majority also kept together when it elected Thompson for his fourth term as speaker over Armstead in January.
The Democrats' more immediate choice is whether to stick with Thompson's leadership team. The emerging candidates include Majority Leader Brent Boggs of Braxton County, Finance Chair Harry Keith White of Mingo County and Judiciary Chair Tim Miley. Each has cited what's at stake for their party, which also holds a majority in the Senate, the executive branch's elected offices and the state Supreme Court.
"Whoever the speaker might be has a heavy burden in terms of maintaining a Democratic majority and pursuing the Democratic ideals of moving West Virginia forward," said Miley, a Harrison County lawyer. "The next speaker is at great risk of 'one session and done'... I know that (the Democratic Party) will be far more active in the upcoming election ... You'd want to do whatever you can."
Republicans netted 11 seats in 2012, in part after quietly funding several political action committees that targeted districts considered battlegrounds with attack ads. The Democrats had no comparable game plan, with its legislative incumbents receiving support instead from labor union PACs to mixed effect.