Democrats in West Virginia are gravely concerned about the health of their senior U.S. senator, 91-year-old Robert Byrd, who has been hospitalized since May with a series of infections.
Byrd’s absence has caused distress among supporters and speculation about who would fill his seat if he is unable to return to work.
As the Senate president pro tempore, Byrd is third in the presidential succession line, behind Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
He is the longest-serving senator in history, in office since 1959. Communities around the state bear evidence of his work, from federally funded projects to buildings bearing his name.
Since November, Byrd’s power has dwindled along with his health — as evidenced by his spotty chamber attendance and his quiet relinquishment of the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee.
Byrd’s Washington office has been mostly mum on details of his illness and where he is receiving treatment. His press office periodically releases updates saying he is recovering from an infection, in constant contact with his staff and expected back at the Capitol soon.
Should Byrd’s seat become vacant before his term ends in 2012, that would create the first non-incumbent Senate race in West Virginia since 1984 when Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, won his seat. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin would appoint a replacement to serve until a special election is held.
State law requires candidates to go through primary and general elections for the seat, so the earliest that process could begin would be the 2010 spring primary, leading up to a November general election for the remainder of Byrd’s term. The seat then would be up for election in 2012.
Republicans are eyeing the seat from a political disadvantage: Democrats hold the governor’s office, a majority in the legislature and two of the state’s three congressional seats. Still, it’s a state that hasn’t voted Democrat in a presidential election since 1996. Last year, President Obama lost to Sen. John McCain by 13 points.
University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato said Manchin "could appoint himself, or rather have an agreement with his successor to do so, but that’s unlikely," since such moves often cause political backlash with voters.
It’s "better to appoint a seat-warmer and run in 2010," he said. "Manchin is popular and could win it, scandal aside, and in West Virginia scandal is background noise."
Manchin’s only "scandal" centers on the legitimacy of a business administration degree that West Virginia University awarded his daughter, Heather Bresch. She is chief operating officer of Mylan Labs, a benefactor of WVU.
Despite that, Manchin won re-election last year with 70 percent of the vote.
"West Virginians don’t mind corruption," said Robert Maranto, political scientist at the University of Arkansas, "but they don’t like power grabs."
Manchin could resign, have state Senate President Billy Ray Tomlin assume his governorship (there is no lieutenant governor in the state) and have Tomlin appoint Manchin to the Senate.
Or Manchin could appoint a "caretaker" such as his wife, Gayle Manchin, or Casey, the state party chair. Manchin then could run for the seat in 2010 as the sitting governor, or he could sit out the special election in 2010 and run in 2012 for the full term.
The situation gives Republicans an opportunity, Maranto said.
West Virginians "are populists by nature," he said. "Now that the Democrats run everything in Washington, this is the sort of state that might just want more of a separation of powers and vote Republican."
The state’s lone Republican member of Congress is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of Charleston, a potential candidate. Her father, Arch Moore, was a popular Republican congressman and governor, who eventually landed in prison for fraud but remains well-liked.
"Capito has indicated that she wants to be in the Senate," Maranto said. "In fact, she has talked about challenging Byrd in the past."
But on C-SPAN recently, Capito said she would not run against Byrd because she did not want to run a negative campaign.
Maranto says the challenge for Capito is that she is a woman in a state with an electorate so old many voters do not think Byrd is all that old. West Virginia’s median age of 40.7 is tied with Vermont as the "second-oldest" state in the nation. Only Maine, with a median age of 41.5, is older.
"They might find a woman senator who was raised in Washington and educated at Duke a little too newfangled for down-home West Virginia," Maranto said. "That’s just speculation, though. After all, West Virginia’s other senator is a Rockefeller, and you can’t get much more upscale than that."
Besides Capito, two other Republicans would be considered strong potential candidates: Morgantown businessman John Raese, who ran for Senate in 1984 against Rockefeller, for governor against Arch Moore in 1988 and challenged Byrd for his Senate seat in 2006; or former West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland.
Raese has personal wealth and name recognition to be taken seriously. Ireland probably would defer to Capito and instead seek her seat in Congress if she vacated it for a Senate run.
For West Virginians, no matter which party’s candidate eventually assumes Byrd’s seat, the loss of the powerful Democrat would be felt from the state’s Northern and Eastern Panhandles to the mountainous southern coal mines.
"Byrd’s legacy is one of enormous state and national power," Sabato said. "He could not be dislodged in West Virginia under any circumstances because he brought tens of billions (of dollars) to the impoverished state."
In West Virginia, as legend goes, Byrd is one of the state’s main industries. The state is full of places and roads built with federal money he brought home and, not coincidentally, often named for him.
In the Senate, Byrd rose to the peak of power as majority leader for a number of years and then became Appropriations Committee chairman.
"He helped his state’s economy immeasurably," Maranto said. "When I was in government in the Clinton years, every bureaucrat lived in fear that Byrd would move their office to Morgantown" from Washington.
A master of Senate procedure and great at giving history lessons on the Senate floor, Byrd at one time was an accomplished fiddler who made some pretty good bluegrass recordings, Maranto said.
"But he was also arrogant, vain and probably stayed around a few years too long," he said.