West Virginia political insiders in both parties generally tried to politely avoid open speculation about who might succeed beloved Sen. Robert Byrd (D), even though his health was in decline for years. But with the Senator’s passing Monday morning, that question has become an unavoidable reality.
The state’s Democratic governor, Joe Manchin, will appoint a replacement to fill Byrd’s seat, but the length of that appointment is somewhat up in the air.
State election law requires a special election be held if a vacancy occurs more than two and a half years before a term expires. Byrd was a week short of that mark as his term would have had two and a half years left on July 3.
But the state law also requires a special election candidate to file and run in the state’s primary, which has already taken place this cycle. The next opportunity to file and run in the primary would be in 2012, when Byrd’s term would have been up anyway.
State officials say they are looking to Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) to interpret the election code. And the whole discussion could be a moot point if Manchin waits until next week to officially declare a vacancy in Byrd’s seat.
“The only thing that is clear is that the governor will make a temporary appointment,” said Derek Scarbro, executive director of the state Democratic Party. “Now whether that person serves for six months or two and a half years is yet to be decided.”
Manchin, whose term is up in 2012, is the most often mentioned name to ascend to Byrd’s Senate seat, and his interest in the post is an open secret.
If, and more likely when, he runs, even Republicans acknowledge that he’d be hard to beat. Manchin’s approval ratings are consistently in the 70s.
Manchin said Monday that he will not appoint himself to the position, which makes it more likely that he will appoint a placeholder and spend the next two years gearing up for a 2012 run.
Among those who have been mentioned as potential placeholders are state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio, a former top Manchin aide, and former state party Chairman Nick Casey. Casey, however, is up for a federal judgeship, and some party insiders wonder if he’d be interested in forgoing that job for a two-and-half-year stint on Capitol Hill.
On the GOP side, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the lone Republican in the state’s Congressional delegation, is the most often mentioned name for a possible Senate run, and she is one candidate who might give Manchin a race. Both Manchin and Moore are scions from well-known political families in the state.
But one West Virginia GOP insider said running against the Manchin machine might simply be too big of a risk for Capito.
“I think she’ll stay in the House before she’ll run against Manchin. … I think she’d probably run against anyone other than Manchin,” the GOP source said.
The source said a Capito gubernatorial run in 2012 might be more likely.
Another well-known Republican who has been mentioned as a possible Senate candidate is former West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland.