By Phil Sletten
CHARLESTON, West Virginia: United States Senator Jay Rockefeller (D), who has been in the Senate since 1984, announced that he will not seek re-election in 2014.Rockefeller is 75 years old and currently serving his fifth term.
Rockefeller announced his intentions at a mid-morning Friday news conference, pointing to his success in avoiding a national coal miner’s strike in 1992 and his commitment to making the lives of United States residents better through policy.
“In that fight, and so many others, I’ve been proud to stand with the working men and women of America,” Rockefeller said in his announcement. “Public service demands and very much deserves nothing less than every single thing that you have to bring to bear,” Rockefeller added.
Jay Rockefeller’s retirement likely will bring an end to a long political dynasty, as various members of the Rockefeller family have held office as the Governor of New York, the Governor of Arkansas, and the Vice President of the United States. The term “Rockefeller Republican” became a usual reference to moderate, typically northeastern Republicans; Jay Rockefeller is the only high-profile Democrat in his family’s political history.
Rockefeller’s announcement comes as he faced a potentially tough political race for his seat, although Rockefeller says that did not affect his decision. U.S. House Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R), who was just re-elected to West Virginia’s Second Congressional District by a wide margin, announced that she was running for the U.S. Senate in late November 2012. Capito was considered a strong candidate against Rockefeller, and led him in a few early polls of the race.
Now, with the race open, Democrats face a steeper climb to hold the seat. West Virginia has historically been a strong Democratic state, voting for losing Democratic presidential candidates Hubert Humphrey in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and Michael Dukakis in 1988 despite substantial (if not overwhelming) support for their opponents. West Virginia has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton’s re-election in 1996, and it was only one of three states in which not a single county voted to re-elect President Barack Obama (D) in the 2012 election (the other two states were Utah and Oklahoma). This election marked the first time a Democratic presidential candidate failed to win a single county in West Virginia.
However, Rockefeller had won every re-election bid with at least 63 percent of the vote, and West Virginia is still a largely Democratic state by other metrics. Although Democrats lost seats in the most recent State Senate and State House of Delegates elections, both chambers have significant Democratic majorities. Democrats have held both of West Virginia’s U.S. Senate seats since 1958.Currently, Democrats have twice as many registered voters in West Virginia as Republicans. Some Democrats expressed confidence that they can keep the seat, including U.S. Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The candidates that step forward to seek the Democratic nomination for this senate seat remain to be seen, but by announcing his retirement early, Rockefeller has given them a significant amount of time to raise funds and prepare their campaigns. West Virginia Governor Earl Ray Tomblin (D) has been mentioned as a potential candidate, as current West Virginia U.S. Senator Joe Manchin was governor before the death of longtime Senator Robert Byrd required a replacement. Former U.S. Senator Carte Goodwin, a Democrat appointed to finish Byrd’s term after his death, has also been discussed as a potential candidate, and stated that he is flattered that his name is under consideration. Third District Representative Nick Rahall, first elected in 1976 and currently West Virginia’s only Democratic representative in the U.S. House, has also expressed interest, saying in a statement that he has to “recalibrate all my decisions in terms of what is in the best interests of the people of West Virginia.”
Other Democratic candidates at the state level that may be interested in the seat include West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who has said that she will “seriously consider” running, as well as her husband, District 8 State Senator Erik Wells. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Jean Davis (D) has also been discussed in West Virginia political circles, but she would have to resign her seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Former Governor Gaston Caperton, former state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Callaghan, West Virginia Treasurer John Perdue, and State House Speaker Richard Thompson have also expressed interest in national office at some point or been mentioned has potential candidates in this race.
On the Republican side, Capito may have competition in a primary. First Congressional District U.S. House Representative David McKinley (R) was quoted the day before Rockefeller’s announcement as saying that he was “watching to see what happens with Shelley [Capito],” and that “if she is not going to be that fiscal hawk that is going to make sure that we get our spending under control, then we’ll find another candidate.” Capito received some criticism from conservative groups after her announcement, but Republican leaders had reportedly become increasingly confident that she would avoid a primary challenge in recent weeks. Rockefeller’s announcement, which may make the race more attractive to potential Republican candidates, could invite more primary challenges from the political right.