No one, of course, can really replace Sen. Robert Byrd, the legendary West Virginia Democrat who died Monday after a record 57 years in Congress, 51 of them in the Senate.
But someone must fill his seat.
Senate Democrats hope that West Virginia’s governor, fellow Democrat Joe Manchin, appoints a replacement quickly, as they need every possible vote to pass financial regulatory reform – and any other closely fought legislation that could come up between now and the end of the year. With the passing of Senator Byrd, the Democratic majority drops to 58-41. Sixty votes are needed to halt debate and move a bill to a vote.
Under different circumstances, Governor Manchin’s first choice could well have been ... himself. But voters don’t take kindly to self-appointments. Ditto with family appointments, which probably rules out Manchin’s wife, Gayle, who is active politically. The most likely scenario is that Manchin appoints a loyal caretaker who will not run for the job in his or her own right, leaving the path clear for the popular Manchin to run in 2012 when he is term-limited out of the state house.
One name that has surfaced is that of Nick Casey, a friend of Manchin’s and chairman of the state Democratic Party. Mr. Casey would make history as the first Roman Catholic senator from West Virginia. But he has been nominated by President Obama for a federal judgeship, a job with more longevity.
So Casey’s appointment to the Senate “is not apparently going to happen,” says Robert Rupp, a political historian at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va., and chairman of the West Virginia Elections Commission
Another possible caretaker is a woman named Kelley Goes, state commerce secretary.
When news of Byrd’s death first broke, politics watchers asked whether a special election might take place this year. State law stipulates that if a vacancy occurs more than 2-1/2 years before an incumbent’s term expires, a special election must be held. Byrd died five days before that deadline. But state law also requires that candidates be chosen in a primary. West Virginia’s 2010 primary took place in May.
“Since the filing deadline and primary have long passed, one interpretation – and one that now seems to be embraced by both parties – is that a special election will be held in 2012,” writes Jennifer Duffy, Senate analyst for the Cook Political Report.
If Manchin runs, he would go in as a formidable candidate. If Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) also runs, the Republicans’ strongest potential candidate, that could create a battle of titans. Though Manchin is popular, the state has grown more conservative, voting Republican in the last three presidential races. Another possibility is that Congresswoman Capito opts out of a Senate race she might lose and runs to replace Manchin in the governor’s chair.