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Sen. Jay Rockefeller to retire. Can Republicans seize opportunity?

Early polls showed five-term Democrat Jay Rockefeller trailing GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. While his withdrawal opens the door to a Republican gain, Capito could be vulnerable on the right.

By Staff writer / January 11, 2013

In this August 2011 file photo, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia, talks about the need to overcome the partisan standoff over a bill to end the partial shutdown of the Federal Aviation Administration on Capitol Hill in Washington. Rockefeller said, Friday, Jan. 11, that he would retire instead of running for a sixth term in 2014.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

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Washington

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) of West Virginia announced Friday he would retire instead of running for a sixth term in 2014, removing a formidable obstacle to any GOP attempt to retake the Senate but raising the possibility of an explosive Republican primary battle.

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Senator Rockefeller announced his intention in a mid-morning news conference to step down from representing a state that has something of a split identity: deeply Republican in presidential politics but with no problem electing Democrats to the Senate (Rockefeller and the legendary Democratic Sen. Robert Bird were the state’s long-time duo) or the House, where in 2010 Republicans claimed two of the state’s three House seats for the first time since 1980.

Rockefeller, who counts the expansion of health benefits for coal miners and the expansion of health programs for children among his key legislative accomplishments, would have faced an arduous campaign had he stayed in the race. Early polls showed him trailing Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) of West Virginia, the only announced GOP candidate, and the insider thinking in Washington held that the senator’s more outspoken stance against some coal interests in the last year signaled he was considering retirement.

"I hope that each of you and the state that I love can understand that this is an entirely personal decision," Rockefeller said at the news conference. “It is not a political decision.”

But who will replace him? That’s where things get tricky.

Representative Capito, the daughter of a former three-term West Virginia governor and the first-ever woman elected to the House from the state, finally acceded to requests from GOP leaders to run for statewide office in late November of last year.

But the GOP’s assertive conservative wing sees some parts of her background – her broadly moderate positions embodied by her membership in the Republican Main Street Partnership, a middle-of-the-road GOP organization; her pro-choice stance; her vote to raise the nation’s debt ceiling last year – as reasons to worry.

"Now that Rockefeller has taken himself out of the race, the door is wide open for Republicans in West Virginia to nominate a true conservative," said Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina, a tea party firebrand. "President Obama lost the state by 26 points, so there's no reason a courageous conservative can't win this race."

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