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West Virginia’s Goodwin May Hold Senate ‘Torch’ Until 2012

When West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) said Friday that he was “passing the torch” to Carte Goodwin, his former general counsel and appointee to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D), he likely thought Goodwin would end up handing it back to him in just a few months. But the state legislature has failed to pass a bill to move up a special election to fill Byrd’s seat to this November, meaning the political kabuki of the last few weeks may end up producing what was originally anticipated — a 2012 election.

A little background: Back on June 28, the day Byrd died, state Secretary of State Natalie E. Tennant (D) found that under state law, a special election to fill the remainder of Byrd’s term could not be held until 2012. A bipartisan push led Manchin to ask state Attorney General Darrell McGraw (D) whether the state could legally move up that election to Nov. 2; McGraw agreed that such a move was legal. While McGraw insisted state law allowed Manchin to call the election on his own, Manchin decided to ask the state legislature to codify it into law anyway. He has all but launched his own campaign for the seat, prompting critics to charge that he was crafting the special election rules to benefit his own electoral prospects.

Most people anticipated that when the Democratic-majority legislature returned for a special session back on Thursday, it would quickly pass legislation authorizing the election move. Versions of the bill did end up passing in both houses, but lawmakers adjourned without being able to agree on language that would allow the law to go into effect now rather than after the usual 90-day wait. Since time is tight, a 90-day wait renders the bill useless. Another problem appeared to be a Republican amendment that would have made the special election separate from the general election contest scheduled for the same day — a move that would have allowed the party’s leading light, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, to run for both the special election and her House seat.

As you would expect, both parties are blaming one another for the impasse. State Democratic Party chairman Larry Puccio said in a statement that Republicans were trying to “disenfranchise all West Virginians.”

“It’s disappointing that the process for electing Senator Byrd’s successor has been politicized by House Republicans,” he said. “They are doing the bidding of Republicans in Washington rather than the people of West Virginia. It’s a shame.”

State House Minority Leader Tim Armstead (R) told the Charleston Daily Mail that Republican opposition was not based on partisanship.

“We believe the bill was unconstitutional,” he said. “We believe it was a badly written piece of legislation.”

There is still a possibility that the election may go forward this year. Manchin could just order an election, as Puccio and others have asked. Manchin press secretary Sarah Payne Scarbro told Politico yesterday that Manchin would make a decision on that issue today if the legislative route failed.

It’s important to note that none of this will affect Goodwin’s seating as a senator tomorrow or his ability to subsequently vote on the unemployment benefits extension bill — one reason the media have focused so intently on this seat. If the special election does not happen until 2012, Goodwin will have held the Senate seat for more than two years.

Update at 2:07 p.m.: The Associated Press reports Manchin will hold a press conference at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the situation.

Update at 3:32 p.m.: The press conference has been moved to 4:30 p.m. Local media are reporting there is a compromise bill in the works that would include the amendment allowing Capito to run in both races.

Update at 4:33 p.m.: The press conference is now postponed until tomorrow. WSAZ.com reports Manchin has postponed due to “ongoing discussions” on the bill.

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