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W.Va. Gov. Joe Manchin to push for 2010 special election to replace Byrd

By Aaron Blake

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) Wednesday paved the way for a 2010 special election to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and said he would consider running for the seat this year.

Manchin said at a press conference that he will ask state Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D) to issue an opinion on whether the law allows for a 2010 special election, rather than a 2012 one. Beyond that, he left open the possibility of changing the law through a special session of the state legislature.

Regardless of how the change is made, though, Manchin said he will be behind the effort. He said he doesn't want to appoint someone who will serve without the voters' consent for two- and-a-half years.

"I can't do it," Manchin said. "I believe in the power of the vote."

The change would add another competitive seat to a 2010 cycle already chock full of pickup opportunities for Republicans. The addition of another seat to the map would expand their chances of significantly diminishing the Democrats' majority or even retaking the Senate.

The Secretary of State's office ruled last week, after Byrd's death, that the law didn't allow for a special election this year, and said an appointee would serve until the 2012 general election. Since then, though, Republicans and some Democrats have pushed for a quicker vote on Byrd's replacement. Among those urging the earlier date include the Manchin-allied Chamber of Commerce and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who is seen as the most likely GOP candidate for the seat, joined the chorus Wednesday morning, urging the legislature to speed up the process and set a 2010 special election.

"The power of our vote should never be limited or delayed in selecting our elected officials, and 28 months is too long for any person to serve in an elective office through appointment," Capito said.

Capito's call could be seen as indication that she would run for the seat this year, and indeed, and earlier special election would appear to serve her political purposes. Manchin has previously said he intended to serve out his term, and if that remains the case, it would mean Capito wouldn't have to run against the extremely popular governor.

But Manchin said Wednesday that he would indeed entertain the idea of running this year, if the special election is moved up.

"I would highly consider that," he said.

Regardless, the change would allow Capito a head start in the race, given that she already has a $530,000 federal campaign bankroll. Manchin has no federal campaign account.

Having the race in 2010 would also force a tough decision on Manchin's part - whether to vacate the remaining two years on his term as governor and run for the seat, or allow another candidate, like Capito, to build up two years of incumbency before the regularly scheduled 2012 race for a full term. Manchin's situation is also complicated by the fact that he is set to assume the chairmanship of the National Governors Association this weekend.

Either way, Manchin would be formidable. Recent estimates peg his approval rating in the 70s, even as governors across the country are struggling under the weight of a bruised economy.

Aside from legislative action, the change could be made in the courts through a legal challenge. Though the law is somewhat quirky, state Supreme Court precedent appears to back up Tennant's conclusion that current law doesn't allow for a 2010 special.

Manchin said he expects the attorney general to make a determination on the special election law by Monday, and said he will proceed accordingly.

Regardless of when the race is, Manchin should still be tasked with appointing a temporary senator. He has said (and repeated Wednesday) that he would not appoint himself, though the AFL-CIO has urged him to do just that. More likely, it seems, he would appoint a placeholder who would not run for the seat.

Manchin said he already has a list of several potential appointees but will wait to make an appointment until more is known about the succession process.

Top offices in West Virginia are currently dominated by Democrats, but the state went 56 percent to 43 percent for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race. Depending upon how the special election candidates shake out, the race would appear to start out as another toss-up.

Republicans need to take 10 Democratic seats to win back the majority. The additions of West Virginia and, potentially, Sen. Russ Feingold's (D-Wis.) seat would give them 13 pickup opportunities. The math remains very tough, though, especially given the GOP is defending five competitive open seats.

By Washington Post Editors  |  July 7, 2010; 11:48 AM ET
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