April 16, 2015 — Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), making no secret of the fact that he is considering returning to his former job as governor next year, just released the results of an internal poll that places him in very strong political position.
One might believe, since the Manchin campaign organization commissioned the Global Strategy Group (GSG) poll, that such favorable data might be skewed. A companion Harper Polling (HP) independent survey dissuades such an argument, however, confirming the results with their own similar numbers.
But the West Virginia political intrigue isn’t derived from Manchin’s prospects of being elected governor. Rather, greater speculation surrounds what may happen with his Senate seat should Manchin win the 2016 election. The senator and former governor says he will announce whether he will seek the governorship before Memorial Day.
The Manchin GSG poll was conducted during the March 15-18 period and questioned 600 West Virginia registered voters. Though now a month old, the senator’s political operatives released the data just this week. Whether the questionnaire explored the race more deeply is not certain, but the answers to only two Manchin-related queries were released. GSG tested Manchin against Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), a potential general election opponent. The result gave the Democrat an overwhelming 60-30 percent lead. Harper Polling detected a similar conclusion: Manchin leading 58-29 percent.
GSG found Manchin holding a gaudy 66:26 percent favorable to unfavorable image ratio. Harper found a similar 62:33 percent rating.
But HP tested other potential gubernatorial opponents in addition to Morrisey. Against Rep. David McKinley (R-WV-1), who has previously expressed a desire to run for Governor, Manchin is up 52-35 percent. If state Senate President Bill Cole (R) were to be the senator’s gubernatorial general election opponent, the split would be 54-32 percent. Thus, both the Democratic and Republican polls appear in agreement.
Under West Virginia succession law, the governor has the responsibility of filling a vacancy if the state’s US Senate seat(s) were to become vacant. The law is a bit vague as to whether, in this case, incoming Gov. Manchin or outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) would make the Senate appointment, but if the Republican legislative leaders get their way, answering the previous question will become moot.
In anticipation of Mr. Manchin being elected governor, and since the Republicans now control both state legislative chambers they are beginning to craft legislation that would enact a new US Senate succession law. Instead of making an appointment to fill a vacancy in the Senate delegation, the seat would immediately go to special election.
GOP prospects of changing the law are high. Though Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) would likely veto the legislation, West Virginia legislative procedure allows veto override’s to occur with just a majority vote of both chambers.
Should Manchin be elected and a special election scheduled to replace him, the Republicans would have a very strong chance of converting the seat, possibly in the person of either Rep. McKinley or freshmen representatives Alex Mooney (R-WV-2) or Evan Jenkins (R-WV-3). In such a scenario, none of the House members would have to risk their seats to participate in the special Senate election, an attractive proposition not only for them, but for all the statewide officials and legislators, too.
Should Manchin decide to run for governor, and all indications suggest he will, the GOP may be conceding an open governor’s race in exchange for converting a US Senate seat. Should the majority be decided by a single vote in 2016, a 2017 West Virginia special election could conceivably determine which party will assume Senate control.