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West Virginia: Democrats Begin Positioning to Run for Rockefeller’s Seat

Rahall is among the Democrats expected to consider running for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Rahall is among the Democrats expected to consider running for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated 8:15 p.m. | Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s retirement announcement Friday formally kicked off a scramble among West Virginia Democrats, some of whom have been pining to run for an open Senate seat for decades.

Rockefeller thanked his staff and emphasized the progress that has been made on health care in his remarks in Charleston. But West Virginia politicos were absorbed with the future. At least some Democrats said they are relieved that Rockefeller is not running for a sixth term because of his alliance with President Barack Obama, who is very unpopular in the state.

All three members of the congressional delegation are now eyeing the seat. But GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who has been preparing to run statewide for years and announced her campaign in November, begins the race with the edge. She is not only popular but the daughter of a former governor. She may still face a competitive primary from a conservative.

It’s far too early to tell whether Democrats can avoid a primary, especially given this is the first time in three decades ambitious Democrats have a chance to run for Senate. Rockefeller’s retirement creates the first wide-open Senate race in West Virginia since his first election in 1984. There was a open Senate seat following the death of longtime Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd in 2010, but then-Gov. Joe Manchin III appointed a caretaker and then quickly emerged as the de facto Democratic nominee.

Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado said Friday he is confident the party can hold the seat with an “independent-minded Democrat.”

“Democrats maintain nearly a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans in West Virginia, and I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state,” Bennet said.

Here is a first look at the potential Senate candidates being mentioned on Friday:

The Democrats: 

  • Former Sen. Carte P. Goodwin: Goodwin was the caretaker for state’s other Senate seat after Byrd died. He held the seat only for a few months, until Manchin could run for the seat outright. In that experience, a handful of national Democrats say he made a favorable impression in Washington, D.C., and that he comes off as “homegrown.” Also appealing: He has very little political record.
  • Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin: He does not have a voting record in Washington, D.C., and he can run as an outsider in the mold of Manchin. He has also faced back-to-back elections in the past two cycles and survived being compared to Obama.
  • Rep. Nick J. Rahall II: Rahall’s spokeswoman confirmed that a Senate run is “under consideration.” He will be a strong primary contender and will be appealing to organized labor groups. But he also has a near-40-year congressional voting record that delights Republicans. Also, in the last several cycles, Rahall has held his district despite Democrats losing there by heavy margins. He has a strong local brand that could be hard to replace, so a Rahall Senate campaign could put the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a bind. 
  • State Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis: She acknowledged Friday afternoon that she is considering the idea. “I will think this through very thoroughly and I will make a rational, well-reasoned decision after serious consideration of what’s best for the state of West Virginia and my family. I always like to keep my political options open.”
  • West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant: Tennant, like Davis, emphasized the legacy Rockefeller will leave but is also keeping her options open. She said she has received numerous calls and emails from supporters asking her to run and she is still “digesting” the news. “I haven’t ruled anything in, and I haven’t ruled anything out.”
  • Other names floated as Democratic contenders include: former Gov. Gaston Caperton, state Sen. Jeff Kessler, state Treasurer John Perdue and state Speaker Rick Thompson.

The Republicans:

  • Capito: She remains the frontrunner for this seat. “Whoever [the Democratic nominee] is, better have a substantial amount of money because they’re definitely going to have to spend it,” Kanawha Democratic County Chairman Norris Light said. Democrats also said that if she has to tack right in a primary, it could do serious damage in the general election. Democrats also plan to paint her as a Washington insider.
  • Rep. David B. McKinley:  He has continued to float his name as a contender, but insiders suspect he will not end up running.
  • TBD Tea Party Candidate: The Senate Conservatives Fund issued a statement this morning highly critical of Capito. But state Republicans said that there is no obvious candidate from this end of the spectrum to challenge her. Democrats are hopeful that a primary challenge materializes and will damage Capito ahead of the general election.

Updated 8:15 p.m.

Tomblin released a statement indicating he has no interest in the Senate seat:

“I have again been blessed with the wonderful privilege of taking the oath of office as governor. And I’m honored to have this tremendous opportunity to serve the people of West Virginia. I look forward to spending my next four years as Governor making West Virginia a better place to live, work and raise a family.”

Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.

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