Sabato's Crystal Ball

Rockefeller Retirement Guarantees Republicans Nothing

Kyle Kondik, Political Analyst January 11th, 2013

Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D-WV) decision to retire is a positive development for Republicans. But whether they can capitalize on it, and their other opportunities, is an open question.

There are 35 Senate elections coming up in November 2014 — 33 regularly scheduled and two specials (Hawaii and a second seat in South Carolina). Democrats currently hold 21 of those seats, and Republicans hold 14. Obviously, these numbers would seem to benefit the Republicans, especially because of the 14 Republican-held seats, there aren’t really any obvious Democratic targets (unless Susan Collins retires in Maine, but there’s no indication she’ll do so). Perhaps some strange primary outcome will make an uncompetitive Republican seat competitive — something akin to Richard Lugar’s primary defeat in Indiana in 2012 — but there’s no real indication of that happening this early in the cycle.

West Virginia is probably now the Republicans’ best Senate pickup opportunity, but there are several others. South Dakota’s Tim Johnson (D) may retire, and even if he doesn’t, ex-Gov. Mike Rounds (R) will be a very strong challenger, assuming he runs (which is likely). Other red state Democrats who probably will have tough races are Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’ Mark Pryor, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan. Given that Democrats currently hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, Republicans can win a narrow majority so long as they hold all their current seats and capture the six races mentioned here, which are all in states Mitt Romney won in 2012 (and there are other blue state targets as well — a full list of this year’s Senate races is available here).

That said, in recent years, Republicans have kicked away many good Senate opportunities. We cannot just assume they will capitalize on those available to them on this year’s map. We also have no idea what the political climate will be next fall. Midterms are often bad for the incumbent president’s party, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that this midterm will be bad for this president’s party.

West Virginia is interesting politically because it is one of the few states that has widely different preferences in national and statewide elections. Post-Bill Clinton, the state has become very Republican at the presidential level, but Democrats still rule the state: They hold all but one of the statewide elected executive offices and both Senate seats. But cracks are starting to appear in the state’s conservative Democratic foundation: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) has had two difficult elections (both last November and in a 2011 special election) and Republicans took a 2-1 edge in the state’s congressional delegation in 2010. Further down the ballot, Democrats still retain control of the state’s House of Delegates, but Republicans added 11 net seats in last year’s election. Will West Virginia retain its split national/statewide character, or will it go the way of much of the South, which over the past few decades saw its presidential Republicanism trickle down the ballot?

On paper, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) is a strong candidate for the Republicans, but she has faced some opposition from national Republican groups, accusing her of being too moderate. Whether West Virginia Republicans care about the preferences of national Republican interest groups is an open question; what is clearer is that of the possible Republican candidates, Capito would be the strongest. Rep. David McKinley (R), a rare opponent of Paul Ryan’s budget plan from the last Congress, is considering jumping in the primary race too. Capito would almost certainly start as the favorite if she makes it through her primary, but we have to wait and see how things develop.

The Democrats have a deep bench because of the durability of their statewide brand. Carte Goodwin, who briefly served as an appointed senator after the death of the legendary Sen. Robert Byrd (D), is a possibility to run for Senate or for Capito’s House seat; so is Rep. Nick Rahall (D), who will face a tough race next year whether he runs for Senate or if he runs for reelection to his House seat (Rahall is a top target of the National Republican Congressional Committee). Other Democratic possibilities include Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Senate President Jeff Kessler, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Treasurer John Perdue, all of whom ran in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in 2011. Tomblin, the man who beat all of them, could also run — it would be his third statewide race in four years, but he would be running from safety, as would the other statewide officeholders. Can one of these potential candidates — or someone else? — emerge as a legitimate contender to hold a Senate seat in what will likely be a challenging environment? Maybe — remember that two years ago, most analysts assumed that the Red State seat of the retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND) would easily flip to Republican control, but the spirited candidacy of now-Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D) — and the poor one of now-ex-Rep. Rick Berg (R) — upset those predictions.

It’s possible that Rockefeller’s retirement might actually be good for West Virginia Democrats, because Rockefeller has taken some stances that might have hurt him in this race, such as a harder line on coal. But let’s not overthink this — Rockefeller has won five Senate terms, and in his last race — 2008 — he got 64% of the vote, running 21 points better than President Obama on the same ticket. One has to imagine that national Democrats would have preferred for the incumbent to have given it another go.

The general thinking, at least nationally, is that midterm years are bad for Democrats because turnout is lower and the electorate is older and less diverse (and hence more Republican). But it’s also possible that this midterm year in West Virginia would be better for state Democrats than 2012 because they won’t have to share the ballot with Barack Obama, whose brand in Mountaineer Country is beyond weak. Senate Republicans have a lot of demons to exorcise from the past two cycles — they can start by running a good race here. One thing seems clear, though: It’s hard to see Mitch McConnell becoming Senate Majority Leader in 2015 if both of West Virginia’s Senate seats are held by Democrats, as they are now.