Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) plans to announce today that he will seek a ninth term, ending months of speculation the 87-year-old lawmaker was considering retiring next year to avoid a grueling re-election campaign.
“I am going to tell the people that I have faith in the people of West Virginia,” Byrd said in an interview Monday. “I have seniority, experience and I have worked with them. I have helped West Virginia climb mountains. We have done so before and we have future mountains to climb.”
With President Bush’s strong showing in West Virginia in 2004, Republicans have said that Byrd is one of their main targets in 2006, although a top-tier candidate has not yet emerged. Still, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Byrd already have begun airing campaign ads in a race that is not yet defined.
Republicans are hoping that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito will challenge Byrd, but Moore’s spokesman said she is still studying a potential bid.
“The Congresswoman is expected to make her intentions known sometime in the fall,” said R.C. Hammond, Capito’s spokesman. “It could be as early as the next few weeks.”
Rob Capehart, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party, said he spoke to Capito as late as Saturday and was not able to discern which way she was leaning.
“Obviously Shelley would be an extremely strong candidate,” Capehart said. “A lot of the polling that we have seen shows she would be strong competition for Senator Byrd.”
Should Capito decide to run, one of her top aides would be at the helm of the West Virginia Republican Party. Anne McCuskey, Capito’s deputy chief of staff, will be named today as the new executive director of the state GOP.
If Capito chooses to forgo a Senate campaign, another possible candidate with high name identification, Gale Catlett, is said to be considering challenging Byrd. Capehart described the former head basketball coach at West Virginia University as a “great candidate” who would be a “great campaigner.”
For his part, Byrd said he is not focused on who Republicans eventually choose as their nominee, but the West Virginian added that he expects outside interest groups to try to influence the election.
“I don’t know who will run, but I know what I will do,” Byrd said. “I am trusting the good judgment and faith of West Virginians not to allow the people from the outside to come in and tell them how to vote.”
Byrd, himself, has benefited from an influential national liberal advocacy group. Moveon.org’s political action committee is credited with helping infuse $834,000 into Byrd’s campaign war chest in the first six months of this year.
Current and former Democratic colleagues also are rallying to Byrd’s side. Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) hosted a fundraiser Sunday on his behalf in New York that raised about $100,000. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.) held a similar event Friday in Chicago for the West Virginian that collected between $60,000 and $80,000.
Earlier this month, former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) hosted a fundraiser at his northwest Washington, D.C., home that raised more than $100,000 for Byrd. As of June 30, the West Virginia Democrat had more than $1.7 million cash on hand in his campaign account.
The Iraq war, Byrd’s ability to bring federal dollars home to West Virginia, seniority in the Senate as well as his age are all issues that are expected to arise in the upcoming campaign. On the most sensitive of all of these, Capehart said Republicans have no plans to try to link Byrd’s age with his ability to serve as a Senator.
“That will be up to each individual voter,” he said. “That is information the public already has.”
But privately some Republicans suggest Byrd’s age is going to be a liability once people see him on the campaign trail. If he wins re-election next year, Byrd would be 89 at the start of his ninth term.
The West Virginian, though, dismissed any suggestion that his age would affect his ability to continue serving in the Senate.
“Age is a funny thing,” Byrd said as he prepared for today’s announcement at the state Capitol in Charleston. “People are growing older, they are working longer and they are contributing more. The same with me and that is where I will use my experience, to get things done for West Virginia.
“I am young in spirit, and I know I have been able to do a lot of those things for West Virginia,” he added.