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Manchin Faces 95-Year-Old Primary Challenger From His Left

Coming on the heels of this morning’s news that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) will not be a candidate in the special election for the late Robert Byrd’s (D) Senate seat, it appears Gov. Joe Manchin (D), who announced yesterday that he will run for the seat, may face a challenger from within his own party.

Ken Hechler, a former congressman and former state Secretary of State — ironically, Manchin succeeded him in that role — filed the necessary paperwork today to run in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary. As of this article’s posting, he and Manchin are the only filed candidates.

Hechler started his political career as a White House assistant during the Truman administration. As a member of Congress, he represented portions of what is now Rep. Nick Rahall’s (D) district between 1959 and 1977. After losing the 1976 Democratic gubernatorial primary to now-Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) and a bid to win back his old House seat in 1978, Hechler went on to serve as Secretary of State from 1985 through 2001. By the time of the Nov. 2 special election, Hechler will be 96 years old — four years older than Byrd was when he died June 28.

Hechler is far more liberal than Manchin. He was a strong advocate of campaign finance reform, joining activist Doris “Granny D” Haddock in her lobbying efforts that eventually produced the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. He is also an outspoken advocate of mining safety reforms. He was critical of the Mining Safety and Health Administration in the wake of the April explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine during an interview with TWI later that month.

“This is a case not only of the operator thumbing his nose at the strictly legal requirements and regulations,” Ken Hechler, former West Virginia congressman who was lead sponsor of a 1969 law that overhauled mining safety, said this week in a phone interview. “It also involves a failure of the Mine Safety and Health Administration itself to act aggressively against the mine in order to ensure that either the conditions be made safe, as provided in the law, or to toughen the enforcement … to close the mine.”

In fact, Hechler appears to be basing his entire campaign on another mining issue — mountaintop removal. He told the Charleston Daily Mail:

“I don’t want to make it a campaign against Gov. Manchin,” Hechler said this morning, speaking on the phone from New York, where he is doing a series of public lectures. “I want to make it about mountaintop removal. A vote for me is not a vote for Ken Hechler – it’s tantamount to a vote against mountaintop removal.”

Manchin has generally been an opponent of mining reforms — recently because he has considered suing the Environmental Protection Agency over new water quality guidelines that would affect work at the state’s strip mines. Manchin has received $281,963 in campaign contributions from coal industry PACs and individuals who work in the industry.

Hechler’s candidacy does not appear to pose a significant challenge to Manchin’s claim on the Democratic nomination — Hechler told the Daily Mail as much. But given that the two represent two different political ideologies present within the state party, things could still get interesting.

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