The Democratic Party’s domination of the two U.S. Senate seats in West Virginia for the last half-century has created an orderly, albeit glacier-paced, succession process.
Senators Robert Byrd and Jennings Randolph held forth steadily from 1958 until 1984. In 1984, Randolph retired, clearing the way for Jay Rockefeller, who was looking to Washington after finishing his second term as Governor.
When Byrd died in 2010, then-Governor Joe Manchin was positioned as the next in line.
This continuity kept the state’s leading Democrats from beating each other up in Primary Elections. That helped the Democratic Senators fend off the occasional serious Republican challenger.
But it also kept potentially promising Democrats at the end of the bench. For five decades, the prized U.S. Senate seats were not available to Democratic candidates with higher aspirations.
However, Senator Rockefeller’s announcement last Friday that he’s not running for re-election in 2014 has shaken up conventionality. West Virginia Democrats have an open shot at a Senate seat for the first time since 1958 (the year both Byrd and Randolph won election).
So, who’s ready for prime time?
If there were a line, West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall would have to be near the front. Rahall first won election to the House of Representatives in southern West Virginia in 1976 and has won re-election every two years since.
Rahall’s office says a possible run is “under consideration,” but he would have to give up his House seat in the process and have his opponent pore over a long voting record.
Charleston attorney Carte Goodwin served briefly in the U.S. Senate when Manchin appointed him following the death of Senator Byrd and only until a special election could be held. Goodwin and his family are well-connected politically, but he’s never run for statewide office before.
Goodwin would be a fresh face, someone who does not have a record he has to defend. But without personal wealth he would have to raise lots of money, especially since he’s not well know statewide.
State Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis has always had one eye on the Senate or a federal judgeship. She has statewide name recognition, but she would have to resign her seat on the court the moment she announced she’s running.
Davis has personal wealth (her husband, Scott Segal, is a successful trial lawyer), but Davis has just come through a rigorous campaign for re-election. Does she want to now get into a tougher race?
Democratic sources say that Ralph Baxter wants to run for the seat. Baxter is a successful attorney who is retiring as Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe, an international law firm based in San Francisco.
Baxter has been active in West Virginia politics and public service, and now with his retirement, he’s expressed an interest in running for office.
Naturally, there are other names circulating, and ultimately none of those mentioned here may decide to run. A U.S. Senate race, even in a small state, is a serious and expensive undertaking.
And looming for the Democratic nominee is a likely General Election race with Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who has already announced she’s running.
The Democratic Party may end up holding the seat, but the long standing succession process has come to an end.