Today is an extraordinary day in West Virginia. Gov. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) appointed his former legal counsel, Carte Goodwin, to fill the unexpired term of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) for the next few months. The West Virginia Legislature is amending state law to allow for a special election in 2010, opening the door for the 62-year-old Manchin to run for the remaining two years of Byrd’s term. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va) is hosting a fundraiser at his home in Charleston for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.); a fundraiser that Manchin is not attending according to West Virginia MetroNews.
“Robert C. Byrd was a giant. We can never replace him,” Gov. Joe Manchin said. “Regardless of whoever occupies this seat now and in the future, it will always be known as West Virginia’s United States Senate Seat that was occupied for nearly 52 years by our beloved, faithful public servant, Robert C. Byrd.”
The death of Sen. Byrd affected not only the lives of the citizens he touched or annoyed, or the various agencies that depended on the billions of dollars of earmarks he brought back to the state over the last 52 years, but the very shape of West Virginia politics itself. Like a splash of a pebble in a pond, the ripple effects could either be an opportunity or a catastrophe for a state that continues to rank at the bottom in areas such as poverty, education, unfunded liabilities, etc.
National media outlets and conservatives constantly point out that West Virginians voted for former President George W. Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). This is seen as a positive sign that a Republican could win in the possible 2010 special election for Senate. However, it’s not quite that simple.
West Virginians can be divided into three political categories: Republicans, conservative/moderate Democrats, and liberal Democrats. Many West Virginians align themselves in the conservative/moderate Democrat category and that shows itself in state government. Take Gov. Manchin for example. He is pro-life, pro-gun, and was endorsed by both the AFL-CIO and the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which also support him as a possible U.S. senator. This past general session the legislature passed a bill allowing mothers who come in for an abortion to see an ultrasound of the fetus. That bill was pushed through and sponsored by Democrats.
Liberal Dems and Republicans sit on the fringe.Liberal Dems in this state tend to be environmentalists, pushing for stricter regulations on mining, the end of mountaintop removal, and support for cap and trade. Republicans have simply had trouble gaining traction in the state ever since its founding. Currently the state party is in turmoil, with a chairmanship election only a week away. The current chair, Dr. Doug McKinney, is accused by party members of corrupt and unethical activities, including illegal use of corporate donations and bullying.
The one high-profile Republican that has a chance against Manchin is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). She is pro-choice, but is seen as an up-and-coming leader in the House, often at House Minority Whip Eric Cantor’s side. She was a strong voice against the health care bill passed earlier this year, as well as Obama’s financial reform plan. She has the war chest and the name recognition to challenge Manchin in a Senate campaign, but despite pressure from national media and Republican insiders it may be a smarter move to stay where she is and wait until 2012 or 2014.
Why 2014? That is when Sen. Rockefeller is up for reelection, and rumor has it that he may choose to retire instead. Rockefeller played a large role in pushing through the health care bill, and in a sit-down with constituents two months ago Rockefeller said that public option legislation could be considered next year. When push comes to shove Rockefeller has sided with the state and come out against tougher EPA clean water regulations that could hurt the state’s mining community, but he is for cap and trade legislation.
There are other Republicans interested in running should a special election occur. Businessman John Raese, who was soundly defeated by Byrd in 2006, has expressed interest. Former W.Va. Secretary of State Betty Ireland, who chose not to run for reelection in 2008, is also on the short list of possible candidates. The NRSC is already pumping money into the state party, which took out newspaper ads attacking Manchin this week.
The one thing that could hurt Manchin is his appointment of Goodwin as a temporary senator. Goodwin comes from a politically connected family, with a uncle as a federal judge and a cousin as a U.S. attorney. An aunt is state cabinet secretary, and his own wife is an aide to Sen. Rockefeller. Goodwin’s father, until his recent death, was chairman of the West Virginia University Board of Governors. The Goodwin and Manchin families have been close allies.
During the senior Goodwin’s tenure as WVU BOG chair, Michael Garrison, head of the Higher Education Policy Commission under Manchin, was selected as WVU president. Under his presidency it was revealed that Gov. Manchin’s daughter and Mylan Pharmaceuticals COO Heather Bresch had not earned a MBA degree she claimed to have had. Administration officials working for Garrison, a former classmate of Bresch’s and a former Mylan lobbyist, changed her grades to make it look as though she completed the required courses. A independent study took Garrison to task for the scandal and he resigned in 2008.
Carte in a press conference said he would not run in the special election. He also made it clear he would not vote in favor of cap and trade and is expected to vote the way Manchin wants him to.
“I want to thank the governor for entrusting me with this awesome responsibility,” Goodwin said. “In turn, it is now my responsibility to work every day to earn the trust of my fellow West Virginians. I have no agenda, other than fighting for my state and putting the interests of her people first. Robert C. Byrd, the greatest public servant West Virginia has ever known, and a true giant of American history, has left quite a legacy. I cannot begin to replace Senator Byrd, nor can I hope to ever fill his shoes. But what I can do is emulate his work ethic and his commitment to West Virginia.”
All the while, the state legislature is still working out bugs in the succession legislation crafted by Manchin. The special session will continue Saturday and maybe Sunday.
One thing is for sure: the death of Robert C. Byrd has left the state in political chaos and it remains to be seen which party will come out on top.