CHARLESTON - The onus will be on West Virginia Democrats to find a strong candidate in 2014 for the U.S. Senate, Republican Party representatives said Friday.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat in the Senate since 1984, on Friday said he will not run for re-election to a sixth term. Rockefeller, 75, a former governor and secretary of state, was first elected to the Senate in 1984.
"As I approach 50 years of public service in West Virginia, I've decided that 2014 will be the right moment for me to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in and to spend more time with my incredible family," Rockefeller said in his announcment at the Culture Center in Charleston with his wife, Sharon, and their children and grandchildren, sister and brother-in-law, friends and staff.
U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, right, and his wife, Sharon, listen to speakers as he formally announced he will not seek a sixth term at the Culture Center Great Hall in Charleston Friday. (AP Photo)
"Serving West Virginia in the U.S. Senate is an abiding honor and privilege, and Sharon and I are so full of gratitude to our state and to the countless friends and supporters who have made my public service possible," Rockefeller said. "For the next two years in the Senate, and well beyond, I will continue working tirelessly on behalf of all West Virginians. Championing those most in need has been my life's calling, and I will never stop fighting to make a difference for the people who mean so much to me."
Rockefeller's departure is an opportunity for the Republicans and a problem for the Democrat Party, Greg Smith, chairman of the Wood County Republican Party, said. Smith expects to see many Democrats fighting with each other for the nomination.
"It will be a donnybrook with the Democrats," Smith said.
However, the Democrats lack depth, according to Smith. After Joe Manchin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate, they have no one with a large statewide appeal, a problem the Republicans had years ago, Smith said.
"I think it's going to be a dilemma for the Democrats to find someone to run against a strong Republican opponent," Smith said.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, last month said she would run for the U.S. Senate. Capito, the daughter of former Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., was first elected to Congress in 2000 and was encouraged to run against Robert C. Byrd.
Wood County Democratic Party Chairman Harold Brown believes otherwise. Looking ahead at the 2014 election, Brown believes with the right combination of Democrats, the state can completely rid itself of Capito.
"She's sharp and dedicated to the Republican agenda," Brown said. "If the Democrats come up with the right combination for Capito's seat and at the same time - the right person runs (for Senate) - we might find ourselves displacing Capito."
Capito issued a statement, saying Rockefeller served West Virginia with distinction and has always been a gentleman and hardworking statesman.
"While we disagree on many policy issues, the number one concern for both of us has always been the welfare of West Virginians. I consider him a personal friend and thank him for his service," Capito said.
Rockefeller's announcement means "a whole lot of opportunity on both sides of the aisle," said Rocky Peck, a vice chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party.
Republicans have made inroads into state government. State party Chairman Conrad Lucas predicts it will be the majority party in the Legislature after the 2014 election.
The party has more representatives in the Legislature than it has in decades, two Republican congressmen represent West Virginia, a Republican defeated the Democratic icon Attorney General Darrell McGraw and a Republican was elected to the Supreme Court. Even Manchin sides with Republicans on some issues.
Confidence is high the seat will go Republican in 2014, according to Lucas. Rockefeller's decision not to run bolsters that confidence, he said.
"We fully anticipate winning the Senate seat in 2014," Lucas said.
All West Virginians and Americans are living better because of Rockefeller, state Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio said.
"While I am so happy for Senator Rockefeller and his family to be able to enjoy his retirement together, it is my hope that whomever replaces him in the Senate will have the same commitment to put our people above politics," Puccio said.
With Rockefeller out of the election picture, expect to see a change in how business is done in West Virginia, Peck said.
"This means that the era of big government and big spending is ending," Peck said. "This means we will have a more conservative approach in how we run affairs in our state."
Brown was only half-shocked by the six-term senator's announcement. Rockefeller's physical health has deteriorated, Brown said.
Brown called Rockefeller one of the most "kind-hearted" political figures he knew.
"He was never one to put on a show," Brown said.
Rockefeller was different from his long-time Senate counterpart, the late Robert C. Byrd, but the two complemented each other, Brown said.
"Rockefeller has been more interested in what some may call the soft stuff, education, health care, workplace safety and the environment," Brown said. "He's been very steady at it."
Rockefeller is held in high regard by many on both sides of the political divide, Brown said.
Parkersburg Mayor Bob Newell said Rockefeller was key to bringing jobs to West Virginia through his relationship with Japanese auto manufacturers. Rockefeller was a key figure in luring companies such as Toyota, NGK and Hino to the area.
Hino built a truck assembly plant in Williamstown.
"When talking to him, every time I met with him you could tell he was proud to serve our state. I wish him luck in leaving office," Newell said.