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A Commentary By Larry J. Sabato

West Virginia Senate—It is looking very likely that we’ll have a 37th Senate election to noodle about, the extra being held in the Mountain State to choose the successor to the late Senator Robert C. Byrd (D), the longest serving member of Congress in history who passed away on June 28. At first, all indications were that a gubernatorial appointee would fill the seat until November 2012, when Sen. Byrd would have come up for his tenth Senate term. The Secretary of State in West Virginia tentatively ruled so, though West Virginia law is somewhat ambiguous on the point.

In the first blush, after Sen. Byrd’s demise, it was generally believed that Democrats would have preferred to have a guaranteed appointee in place for the next two and a half years, without adding yet another contested Senate race to the 2010 roster—especially in a state that has voted Republican for the past three presidential elections. West Virginia might be one more seat to worry about in a bad year for Democrats. On the other hand, an election in 2012 would simply have delayed the day of reckoning. We can assume, barring an Obama reelection landslide, the Republican nominee for president will be favored to carry West Virginia in November 2012. A non-incumbent Democratic candidate for Senate might be vulnerable at that time if the GOP presidential standard-bearer has long coattails.

However, this big-picture strategic thinking did not take into account Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin’s clear and present ambition. Already midway through his second and final term as governor, Manchin wanted Byrd’s Senate seat now. While legally the governor can appoint himself (via agreement with his gubernatorial successor, i.e., “you appoint me senator and you get to be governor”), Manchin recognized that it is dangerous business. The modern record of gubernatorial self-appointment to open Senate seats is dim, since voters like to reserve for themselves the choice of their senators. Out of nine such moves since 1933, just one governor-turned-senator, Kentucky’s Albert “Happy” Chandler, managed to hold onto the post in the next election. Neither would the appointment of a trustworthy seat-warmer necessarily go over well with the electorate. “Trustworthy” is defined here as someone who could be trusted to step aside in 2012 and make way for Manchin. Everyone from Manchin’s wife, Manchin’s past two hand-picked state Democratic chairs, and former Democratic Governors Gaston Caperton and Bob Wise were touted as interim senators. In addition, Manchin, already 62 years old, wanted to begin accumulating seniority, which is clearly something West Virginians value.

Various Manchin backers, including organized labor, began urging that a special election be held this November and that Manchin run. Some newspaper editorialists joined the “draft Manchin” movement. Little convincing was necessary, and Manchin wasn’t hard to draft. Armed with an opinion from the Democratic state attorney general that a special election could be held in November, Manchin quickly signaled that he would seek approval from the state legislature for such a move, and that he would be in the race. (The legislature is meeting today; Manchin will announce his interim senator in a day or two—the one who will serve only until this November.)

It is a gamble in a strong Republican year, for sure, and if GOP Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former two-term Governor Arch Moore (R), decides to forgo reelection to the House and seek the Senate berth, it will be a real contest. But Capito doesn’t seem inclined to run, preferring to hold onto her House seat and maybe trying for the governorship. There really is no other competitive Republican candidate to oppose Manchin.

Even in a Manchin-Capito match-up, the Crystal Ball would give the edge to the popular Manchin, a more moderate-conservative, anti-cap and trade, pro-coal sort of Democrat. Manchin appears more conservative than Byrd and the other senator, Jay Rockefeller (D), by the way. If elected, he likely will not be as sure a vote for Obama administration policies as Byrd was. In fact, Manchin could turn out to be another Ben Nelson, the senator from Nebraska, who is the least reliable Obama vote in the current Democratic caucus (other than Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut).

Meanwhile, the State Senate President, Earl Ray Tomblin (D), would temporarily succeed to the governorship if Manchin wins the Senate seat. West Virginia does not have a separately elected lieutenant governor, though the Senate president is given that honorific title. Tomblin would become the 16th next-in-line to get a state governorship without an election just since 2000. At some point in Tomblin’s term as acting governor it would become necessary to hold a special election to fill the rest of Manchin’s term, but the timing of this special election, like much of West Virginia election law apparently, is ambiguous. It is possible that Capito would run for governor in that special election—which would enable her to retain her House seat if she lost. It is also possible that the state legislature would modify or clarify the gubernatorial succession and special election process in the intervening months, adding an additional element of uncertainty to the proceedings.

By the way, 37 Senate elections is a rare occurrence, and it’s actually 38 in 2010 when you add in the already-held January special election in Massachusetts, won by Scott Brown to succeed the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA). The last time as many as 37 Senate elections were scheduled for November was 1962 when 39 were held. In fact, 37 or more November Senate elections have only take place in three election years since World War II (1962: 39 seats up, 1954: 38 seats up, 1946: 39 seats up).

The situation is fluid, but assuming there is a special Senate election in November with Joe Manchin as the Democratic nominee, we rate this one Leans Democratic. If Shelley Moore Capito is not the Republican nominee, our rating will probably change to Likely Democratic.


Alabama Governor: Populism in Alabama is alive and well. The GOP establishment’s choice for governor, former community colleges chancellor Bradley Byrne, led the first primary in June, but was well below the majority needed to avoid a run-off. On Tuesday, Byrne faced state Rep. Robert Bentley, who squeaked into the runoff by a margin of 208 votes out of 492,480 cast. Bentley edged out Tim James, the son of a former governor. While James never endorsed a candidate in the runoff, Gov. Bob Riley (R), several other prominent GOP congressmen and state leaders, and the big state newspapers rallied to Byrne’s side. Bentley is regarded as somewhat open to the views of the state teachers’ group, the Alabama Education Association, and is almost unknown in elite circles in the state’s capital. Bentley was greatly outspent by Byrne, and had an abbreviated campaign due to uncertainty about his win over James. Still, Bentley won the GOP gubernatorial nomination convincingly, 56% to 44% over Byrne.

How did Bentley do it? Bentley ran a grassroots campaign that was distinctly anti-establishment in a year when that is selling big, especially inside the Republican base. Supporters of Tim James and the fourth place primary finisher, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, mainly gravitated to Bentley, out of opposition to Byrne. Contrary to pre-primary speculation, there is little evidence that Democrats crossed over in any large numbers to back Bentley (and the AEA).

Bentley starts in a good position for November. His Democratic opponent, Agriculture Commissioner Ron Sparks, who defeated Congressman Artur Davis in the primary, is a moderate who is not unacceptable to the statewide electorate. But any Democrat will have a hard time winning in Alabama in the conservative climate prevailing in 2010. Bentley is inexperienced enough to throw away the election via missteps and gaffes, but we’ve seen no evidence yet that he’s inclined to do that. If Bentley continues along his current path, he’ll be a strong favorite in the fall. For now, being cautious, we’ll label the contest as Leans Republican.


Larry J. Sabato is the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

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