West Virginia After Byrd: Who Will Fill the Seat?

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In the seat-counting world of Washington today, even a death cannot stop the incessant speculative adding and subtracting. Robert Byrd’s body is barely cold and already the town is abuzz about who his replacement could be.

Replacing ex-Senators is a complicated process. The 17th Amendment of the Constitution mandates that if a state’s Senator dies, resigns or is expelled, that state legislature may empower the Governor to appoint an interim Senator to hold office until the next election. The actual practice varies by state. Some states require the replacement only serve until a special election, others let the interim Senator serce until the next statewide election. Oregon and Wisconsin do not let the governor appoint a replacement at all, and hold a special election right away.(Read this PDF from the government if you want to know more about Senate vacancies.)

West Virginia, though, is a special case with some ambiguities. Its law states that if the vacancy occurs with more than two and a half years left in the term, a special election will be held after the next primary. Since Byrd died with two years, six months and five days left in his term, but after West Virginia’s primary two months ago, it’s unclear whether his the interim senator would serve until only later this year — or until 2012. (The Washington Post has a more in-depth look at the quirks of the case.)

Because West Virginia Senators serve for such a long time (Byrd since 1959, junior Senator John Rockefeller since 1984), succession is an unfamiliar issue for the West Virginian political establishment. The best man for the job may be Democrat Joe Manchin III — although because Manchin is West Virginia’s Governor, appointing himself would be an unseemly (though not impossible) political move.

Instead, Manchin is likely to appoint a caretaker with no further political ambitions. Newsweek names a trio of possible candidates: former governors Gaston Caperton or Bob Wise, or chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party Nick Casey. (CBS News’ Mac Ambinder reports that Casey is the most likely.)

Whoever the interim Senator is, he will not have plenty of company. Whether driven by the hand of the executive branch or by the hand of God, the Senate has seen an exodus in its ranks recently: Byrd’s replacement will be the seventh appointed Senator in the last two years.