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Handicapping the House speaker's race

SUPPORTERS and independent observers alike believe it's likely that House Speaker Rick Thompson will be able to retain his leadership position when Democrats caucus next month in Charleston.

There is a handful of delegates who want to be speaker, and, as always, some delegates who are disgruntled with the current leadership, but wanting a change and actually having the votes to make it are quite different.

Mingo County Democrat Harry Keith White wants to be speaker, but if he took on Thompson and lost, White would lose his position as chairman of the House Finance Committee. It's hard to imagine a conservative banker like White taking that kind of risk.

Kanawha County Democrat Doug Skaff continues to build support in the House. Skaff either has his eye on the speaker's job or is raising his profile for a possible statewide race.

Braxton County Democrat Brent Boggs wants to be speaker, but he currently holds the second most powerful position in the house, majority leader, and is loyal to Thompson.

Cabell County Democrat Kevin Craig's name comes up. It's unclear, however, if he could get the votes to oust Thompson, despite the fact that business leaders and moderate Democrats would like to see a more politically conservative speaker.

Yes, the Thompson team remains confident, even as the rumors swirl under the Capitol dome. "Nobody's freakin' out," one Thompson loyalist told me privately.

The speaker has apparently been doing his legwork to shore up support.

He personally called or wrote letters to Democratic House members after Tuesday's election. Additionally, he met with his Democratic leadership team Sunday in his Capitol office to plan strategy for the 2013 regular session, which starts in February.

(Delegate White was unable to attend, but that was because of a family commitment, not because he has switched allegiances.)

The House Democratic leaders have to come to terms with the significant Republican gains last Tuesday, which leaves Democrats with only a 54-46 advantage, the narrowest margin in nearly a century.

I'm told there was very little conversation at the leadership meeting about a possible speaker's race, but the message from Thompson was clear: he fully expects to be re-elected speaker.

Those in opposition to Thompson will find what every other insurgency learns; it's easy to get legislators to grouse privately about leadership, but it's another matter for them to publicly support another candidate.

"I've heard of these palace coups before," said one longtime statehouse observer, "and they often never materialize."

Any insurgency would be helped if Gov. Tomblin got involved, but that doesn't seem likely.

Tomblin would have an easier time with his legislative agenda with Thompson gone, but Tomblin, who spent 36 years in the Legislature, including 18 as Senate president, is reluctant to inject himself in leadership fights.

There is, however, the wildcard factor of the House Republicans getting involved.

The minority party typically supports its own leader for the speaker's position, even though he doesn't have the votes to win.

However, if Democrats emerge from their caucus divided over the speaker's race, the GOP could pick sides with one of the opposing party candidates.

That's possible, but unlikely.

It's often difficult to predict the outcome of legislative fights. Allegiances can shift like the tides. But as one veteran and independent vote counter, who believes Thompson will be re-elected, told me, "between teachers, labor and current leadership, the numbers are not close."

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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