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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
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.

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.

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."

When Capito announced her run, another group with a track record of weighing in heavily in Republican primaries – the fiscally conservative Club for Growth – also announced its opposition, saying Capito looked more like failed Republican candidates from the 2010 cycle like Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota or Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana than conservative all-stars like Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah.

“Her candidacy will undoubtedly be cheered by the GOP establishment, and dire warnings will be issued against any ‘divisive’ primary challenges, lest other candidates hurt Capito’s chances of winning,” said Chris Chocola, the Club’s president. “The problem is that Congresswoman Capito’s record looks a whole lot like the establishment candidates who lost this year. Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government.... That’s not the formula for GOP success in US Senate races.”

Republicans need to win six Democrat-held seats to retake the Senate, a possibility given both the absolute number of Democratic Senators up for reelection (20) and the deeply red states many of them represent (West Virginia, Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana, to name a few).

But Republican primary battles like the one brewing in West Virginia have produced not only conservative all-stars (think Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida) over the last two election cycles, but some epic flops (failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of “I’m not a witch” fame) in general elections.

On the Democratic side, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado pointed out that Democrats still hold a two-to-one advantage in voter registration in the Mountain State.

That could bode well for long-time Rep. Nick Rahall (D), the dean of the West Virginia delegation, who reportedly expressed interest in the seat, or other potential candidates including Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Carte Goodwin, a Byrd aide who served a temporary term in the Senate after Senator Byrd’s death in 2010.

“While we will greatly miss [Rockefeller] in our caucus, I am confident we can elect an independent-minded Democrat to his seat next November,” Senator Bennet said in a statement. “I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state."

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