No Congressional Retirements on Immediate Horizon

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:24pm

Popular Democratic incumbents and a penchant for social conservatism among Democratic candidates have left Republicans on the outs in West Virginia — despite President Bush’s success there in 2000 and 2004. [IMGCAP(1)]

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), who is up for a fifth term next year, is said to be in the driver’s seat for re-election absent a challenge from Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R).

Capito’s 2nd district has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but the popular GOP Representative and daughter of a former well-liked Republican governor apparently has figured out the formula for winning over Democratic voters. However, most Republicans expect Capito to stay put in 2008 — it was

rumored she might challenge Sen. Robert Byrd (D) in 2006 before she ultimately chose to run for re-election.

“Right now, Shelley Moore Capito and Gov. Joe Manchin (D) are the two most popular elected officials in the state. Shelley would really give Jay a run for his money,” said one Republican operative. “But I think the odds are low that she’ll do it.”

Absent Capito, the two names mentioned as viable challengers to Rockefeller are businessman John Raese (R) and West Virginia Secretary of State Betty Ireland (R). According to some speculation, Raese’s respectable loss to Byrd in 2006 was nothing more than a practice run for a rematch with Rockefeller.

Raese owns several radio stations, a newspaper, and limestone and steel businesses. He has the ability to self-fund a race, and might be positioned to give Rockefeller a hard time, as the Republican came within about 3 points of ousting him when he ran against the wealthy Democrat in an open-seat race back in 1984.

It takes about $3 million to run an effective Senate campaign in West Virginia, and Rockefeller closed 2006 with $838,810 on hand.

In addition to Raese, Republicans believe Ireland also could give Rockefeller a formidable challenge. She beat a popular Democrat in 2004 to become one of the few Republicans to win a statewide race in West Virginia during the previous 20 years.

Many observers see Ireland as another Capito in the making: A female Republican with wide crossover appeal to West Virginia Democrats. In fact, most believe Ireland’s preference is to run for Capito’s Congressional seat if and when Capito runs for Senate.

On the Democratic side, there is no indication that Byrd or Rockefeller intend to go anywhere. Byrd was just elected to a ninth term in 2006, while Rockefeller is gearing up for another run in 2008.

But at some point when Democrats in West Virginia do go looking for another Senate candidate, all eyes are sure to turn to Manchin. Other Democrats likely would jump at the chance to run for Senate considering that Rockefeller has been there for 23 years and Byrd is the longest-serving Senator in U.S. history.

But according to one Democratic operative familiar with West Virginia, the only viable candidate on the horizon that would also be likely to make a run is Manchin.

When it comes to House candidates, however, the Democrats are loaded.

In Rep. Alan Mollohan’s 1st district, state Sen. Ed Bowman (D) is waiting in the wings — either for Mollohan to retire or for the federal investigation into his financial dealings to escalate to the point that he is not politically viable.

Mollohan survived 2006 under an ethical cloud, so it remains unclear if he has anything to worry about absent being indicted. But Democrats are scared enough that they’re hoping Republican state Sen. Andy McKenzie decides not to challenge Mollohan.

“We’re worried about him,” said the Democratic operative familiar with West Virginia.

The Republican operative said state Del. Chris Wakim (R) might look for a rematch of his 2006 loss to Mollohan, but said he didn’t perform well enough last year to keep other Republicans out of the race if they choose to run.

In Capito’s 2nd district, which includes the state capital of Charleston and stretches to portions of Eastern West Virginia that are practically suburbs of Washington, D.C., the Democratic bench is said to be strong and deep.

The list starts with state Del. Corey Palumbo (D), the well-known son of a former state attorney general. Then there’s Gat Caperton (D), a business owner in the eastern panhandle who is the son of popular former Gov. Gaston Caperton (D), and former state Democratic Party official and current state Del. Carrie Webster (D).

Physician Dan Foster (D) also is said to be a potential challenger to Capito or open-seat candidate should the Republican Congresswoman either retire or run for Senate. If Capito surprises Republicans and does run for Senate in 2008, look for Ireland to run for the GOP nomination to the 2nd district in the state’s May 9 primary.

Former state Sen. Steve Harrison (R) is also said to be eyeing Capito’s seat.

“Betty [Ireland] would have a real good shot if Capito retired,” the GOP operative said.

In Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D) 3rd district, there are two potential Democrats waiting to be the Democratic Party’s standard-bearer in the event that the Congressman retires.

One is former state Sen. Bill Wooten (D), who is said to be very well-liked in the district, although his support for abortion rights could be a problem. He was ousted from the state Senate precisely because anti-abortion-rights forces waged a successful campaign against him.

State Sen. Evan Jenkins (D), who also is the former head of the West Virginia Medical Association, is also much talked about. Republicans don’t see much opportunity in Rahall’s very Democratic 3rd district, and only have a couple of retreads possibly looking to run in 2008.

Rick Snuffer (R), who was trounced by Rahall in 2004, might give it another shot, as might 2006 loser Kim Wolfe, the Cabell County Sheriff.

“Frankly, no one is going to make Rahall sweat too much,” the GOP operative said.