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2012 means little rest for W.Va. politically

January 2, 2012
Associated Press

CHARLESTON (AP) - West Virginia begins its 2012 election calendar with barely a pause after a far-reaching political chain reaction triggered by the death of one man: U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Since the 92-year-old Democrat died in June 2010, the state has conducted back-to-back special elections. One was mandated by West Virginia's Supreme Court. The state has also seen a reshuffling among its key leadership positions.

The cascading political dominoes included the 2010 election of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin to Byrd's seat, in the first of the two special votes. But Manchin won nearly halfway through his second term as governor. Succeeding Manchin as chief executive, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin narrowly won October's court-ordered special election.

That victory then created a vacancy in the office of state Senate president. Tomblin had held that post for nearly 17 years, a record. After serving as acting president, Sen. Jeff Kessler was elected as Tomblin's replacement in November.

Kessler had been the Senate Judiciary chairman, and his elevation brought that committee, Senate Finance and others new leadership. Kessler becoming president and Tomblin's appointment of Art Kirkendoll to what had been his Senate seat - held since 1980 - marked the final political changes arising from Byrd's death.

"It was a sea change in terms of West Virginia politics, in terms of the repercussions or ripples following his passing," said Mike Plante, a veteran Democratic political consultant. "You had a certain amount of stability previously."

Longtime GOP consultant Bill Phillips agreed, but also said the chain reaction reflects a lack of clarity and details in the legal provisions for handling electoral vacancies. The special race won by Manchin was preceded by uncertainty and differing opinions over whether state law called for an elected or appointed successor to complete Byrd's term. Similar questions surrounding the gubernatorial vacancy spurred lawsuits that led to the state Supreme Court mandate.

Even the temporary rules under which Kessler became acting president spurred debate. West Virginia lawmakers have begun drafting measures to address at least some of these questions.

"Hopefully, as a result of all of this, the appropriate changes will be made in the law or the constitution," Phillips said. He later added, "We've had an awful lot of chaos, and awful lot of elections. ...It just snowballed."

But West Virginia now faces a 2012 ballot packed with federal, statewide and local races.

Both Manchin and Tomblin must run again to secure full terms. Along with that of governor, the five other statewide executive branch offices are up this year. So are two of the five spots on the state Supreme Court bench.

All three U.S. House seats are on the ballot. The entire 100-member House of Delegates is as well, as is half the 34-member Senate including Kirkendoll. Voters also must decide a slew of county-level offices, and whether to amend the West Virginia Constitution and allow sheriffs to serve more than two terms consecutively.

President Barack Obama is also seeking re-election. The political results following Byrd's death have mostly benefited Democrats - Manchin, Tomblin, Kessler and Kirkendoll all hail from Byrd's party. Obama lost West Virginia in 2008, and he continues to suffer some of his lowest approval ratings in the state. West Virginia Republicans hope that Democrat will drag down his party's ticket in 2012.

As for 2012 turnout, Phillips said interest in the May Democratic primary could hinge on the governor's race.

"It could be more isolated if Gov. Tomblin doesn't end up with a serious primary opponent," he said.

Phillips is heading the West Virginia campaign of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney. He said that contest will likely determine the turnout for the state's Republican primary.

Plante said a "negative and bitter" tone appeared to affect turnout in the 2011 special gubernatorial general election. Phillips sees that playing a role this year as well.

"I think voters will be glad to see 2012 come and go, and have the political system settle down," Phillips said.

He also said, "Citizens seem to be less interested in participating in politics... We don't need anything more to discourage citizens. We need more ways to encourage them."

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.



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