April 22, 2015 — Now that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has ended speculation about re-running for governor in his home state next year, a game of political musical chairs will soon begin in West Virginia. But, more importantly, the Manchin decision to stay where he is and seek re-election in 2018 vastly improves Democratic prospects of re-taking the Senate.
With the Republican legislature beginning to move legislation that would take Senate appointment power away from the governor, it was becoming apparent that Manchin vacating the seat would very likely allow Republicans a prime conversion opportunity in a 2017 special election. Effectively, such a move would have increased the number of seats Democrats need for a return to Senate majority status from 4 or 5, to 5 or 6. The lower number represents the required conversion total if a Democrat holds the White House in 2016, while the larger number comes into play if the eventual GOP presidential nominee wins. Obviously, it is in the party leaders’ interest to keep Manchin where he is, and they no doubt weighed in heavily upon him.
Since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) is ineligible to seek re-election next year, we now have a competitive open seat gubernatorial race. Though Democrats have lost virtually everything they once held – all but Manchin’s Senate seat and this governor’s office – a West Virginia open statewide race can certainly be competitive.
The Democrats still have a significant political bench, as now do Republicans. State Senate minority leader, and former Senate president, Jeff Kessler is the only announced Democratic gubernatorial candidate. But, it’s possible that Secretary of State and defeated Senate candidate Natalie Tennant, state Treasurer John Perdue, and US Attorney Booth Goodwin could all get in the race sans Manchin being in the field. State Auditor Glen Gainer is another possibility, but he fared poorly in his challenge to Rep. David McKinley (D-WV-1) – getting only 36 percent of the vote and spending less than $450,000 – so he is not considered much of a factor.
The Republican side also possesses some political heavyweights. Attorney General Patrick Morrissey already issued a statement reacting to the Manchin announcement with platitudes about issues and West Virginia’s direction – not a declaration of candidacy, but likely a precursor of such. Rep. McKinley is a former gubernatorial candidate and now the state’s senior US House member, so he may feel the time is ripe to make another statewide attempt. West Virginia Senate President Bill Cole is the third major Republican who is consistently mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate.
The remaining members of the congressional delegation, freshmen representatives Alex Mooney (R-WV-2) and Evan Jenkins (R-WV-3) are both unlikely to run for governor. Mooney, just coming over to West Virginia from being a former state legislator and Republican Party chairman in neighboring Maryland, does not have strong enough Mountaineer State roots to win a contest for governor. Jenkins served in the legislature for 18 years prior to unseating 38-year congressional veteran Nick Rahall (D) last November in the state’s southern House district, and would be in a relatively strong position to run for governor. But, having just won a tough congressional race, it is unlikely that he would risk his coveted post after just one term.
The West Virginia open governor’s race figures to be a highly competitive campaign, and is a top Republican gubernatorial conversion opportunity. But, the Democrats, whether they win or lose the top state post, may have captured the bigger prize. Keeping Manchin in the Senate puts them in an enhanced position to re-capture the majority they held for eight years before losing in November.