Amid a changing political climate in West Virginia, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller said he will not seek a sixth term in 2014, increasing Republican hopes of winning their first Senate seat there since 1956.
As usual in the Mountain State, coal was central to the 75-year-old's announcement. Surrounded by family and friends in the state capital of Charleston, the Democrat pointed to his work securing retirement benefits for coal miners in 1992 as the pinnacle of his political career.
"In that fight, and so many others, I've been proud to stand with the working men and women of America. Miners, steelworkers, teachers and nurses, and everyone who deserves a fair wage, a safe place to work and basic health care," he said.
Mr. Rockefeller signaled his retirement last June when he broke with other coal country lawmakers and voted against efforts to block Obama administration emissions rules on coal-fired power plants. He took his state's leading industry head-on from the Senate floor, saying it "would rather attack false enemies and deny real problems than find solutions."
Fellow Democrat U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd made a similar attack on coal a few months before his death in 2010. Now both will be gone from the Senate in what could be a turning point in political environment of the state.
Democrat Joe Manchin won Mr. Byrd's seat and fellow Democrats hold the governor's mansion and both state legislative chambers. But Republican lawmakers on Nov. 6 saw the biggest surge in their state ranks since the 1920s, adding 11 new members to the state House and the ousting of the incumbent Democratic attorney general. In 2010 voters elected Republicans to two of the state's three congressional seats, which they had not done since the 1980 Ronald Reagan landslide.
One of those Republicans, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, had already said she would run for Mr. Rockefeller's seat in 2014. His announcement opens the door for other Democrats to run, possibly including U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, among others.
Mr. Rockefeller is the first senator of either party to announce his retirement at the end of the current session. Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage in the body and will have 21 Senate seats up for re-election in 2014. Republicans only need to flip seats in West Virginia and five other states that also voted for Mitt Romneyin the presidential race to take control.
"Today is the next step in West Virginia's conservative future," said West Virginia Republican party chairman Conrad Lucas. "This 2014 campaign for U.S. Senate here will mean a clear choice for voters. Will folks support a Republican who will fight for our coal jobs and protect us from Washington, D.C.? Absolutely."
President Barack Obama is almost comically unpopular in West Virginia, where even Democratic voters gave 40 percent of their presidential primary vote last year to a Texas felon who had wrangled onto the ballot. It could be something of a break for Democrats that they will seek to hold Mr. Rockefeller's seat in a non-presidential year, and they enjoy a 2-to-1 registration advantage over the other party.
Republicans looked assured of taking the U.S. Senate in November and could not do it in part because primary voters pushed conservative candidates who were out of place in a general election. Some in the party have similarly criticized Ms. Capito for being too moderate, so the stakes would be high in an intra-GOP battle.
"If Capito wins the Senate election, it could signal the end of West Virginia's split political personality -- Republican at the presidential level, but Democratic at the statewide level, in which case the Mountain State's political evolution would mirror that of most of the South, which had similarly split personalities in recent decades," said Kyle Kondik, political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
Mr. Rockefeller is a great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the Cleveland oil tycoon whose name became synonymous with wealth. Born in New York City and educated at Harvard, he went to West Virginia as an anti-poverty volunteer in 1964 and was elected to the state House two years later. He lost the West Virginia governor's race in 1972 to Republican Arch Moore -- the father of Ms. Capito -- but won it in 1976. When he again faced Mr. Moore in 1980, Republicans distributed anti-Rockefeller bumper stickers saying "Make Him Spend It All, Arch."
He was elected to the Senate to replace retiring Democrat Jennings Randolph in 1984. The last Republican elected to hold either Senate seat from the state was Chapman Revercomb in 1956, who lost to Mr. Byrd two years later.electionspresident
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. The Associated Press contributed.