Manchin reverses course, wants special election

When Robert Byrd passed away, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin seemed content to delay the recognition of the vacancy of Byrd’s Senate seat in order to allow himself the privilege of appointing a caretaker for a seat Manchin wants for himself.  Less than two weeks later and with the threat of a lawsuit hanging over his head, Manchin has apparently changed his mind.  It may also have to do with his likely opponent becoming the center of a voters-rights movement on the issue:

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin voiced support for holding a special election this year to fill the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s seat, announcing that he would request a legal opinion from the state attorney general to determine if a vote could be held.

Manchin, a Democrat who said he would be “highly” interested in running for the seat himself, expressed discomfort with Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s ruling that the governor should name a placeholder to the seat until it comes up for election in 2012. …

Manchin’s announcement came hours after Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a potential Senate candidate herself, urged state legislators to move for a vote this fall.

“The power of our vote should never be limited or delayed in selecting our elected officials, and 28 months is too long for any person to serve in an elective office through appointment,” she said in a statement. “I encourage the West Virginia Legislature to amend our state’s election code and allow for a Special Election during the current election cycle on November 2, 2010.”

Had Byrd survived a week longer, Manchin may not be facing this problem.  The way West Virginia law is written would have prohibited a special election had the vacancy occurred after July 2nd.  The question of judgment and calculation would never have come up.  Instead, Manchin and the state government at least appeared to play games with the calendar to benefit Manchin. Had Manchin wanted a special election this year, all he had to do was immediately declare Byrd’s Senate seat vacant, or press the state government for the declaration. Manchin waited until the cutoff date passed to suddenly discover his inner populist.

No doubt that the Democrat would prefer to run for this office in any other year than 2010, when Democrats will likely face a tsunami of discontent in the midterms. Even though Manchin has publicly opposed the cap-and-trade bills under consideration in Congress, the coal-dependent economy of the state may convince voters that sending any Democrat, even one as popular as Manchin, will make it more likely for such a bill to pass and cripple the West Virginia coal industry.

Manchin may be popular, but so is Moore Capito, who passed on a challenge to Byrd in 2006.  In 2010, given the choice between a Democrat who didn’t exactly move with alacrity on behalf of an election and a Republican who will sap strength from the Democratic caucus that wants to kill West Virginia’s biggest industry, it probably won’t be a tough choice.