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W.Va. Sen. Rockefeller won't seek re-election

| Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, 9:32 a.m.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington on Aug. 3, 2011.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller will leave office when his fifth term ends in 2014 — a high-profile Democratic retirement that analysts say could buoy Republican prospects in West Virginia but cool the state's pull in Washington.

Rockefeller, 75, announced his intention on Friday at the Culture Center in Charleston, where family and friends gathered to fete the former anti-poverty worker and two-term governor.

He said it's time to “bring more balance to my life after a career that has been so obsessively dominated by politics and public policy and campaigns.”

“I've gotten way out of whack, in terms of the time I should spend with my wife and my children and my grandchildren,” Rockefeller said.

A great-grandson of famed oil executive John D. Rockefeller, John Davison Rockefeller IV arrived in West Virginia in 1964 as part of a national service program to undermine poverty. His wife, Sharon Rockefeller, called that a “crucial crossroad in his life,” setting a path for public life.

Jay Rockefeller won election to the state House of Delegates and as West Virginia secretary of State before serving as governor from 1977 through 1984. He advanced to the Senate in 1985 and became senior senator when Sen. Robert C. Byrd died in June 2010.

“He's been there a long time, amassing seniority and figuring out how the Senate works,” said Kristin Kanthak, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. “The idea that in just a couple of years, to lose a Byrd and a Rockefeller — I can't think of a state that's lost that much combined seniority in such a short span of time.”

Kanthak said West Virginia probably would slip in influence and federal funding. Rockefeller's sway stretches across the Senate, in which he chairs the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and helps lead the Committee on Finance. He co-chairs the Senate Steel Caucus.

Rockefeller alluded to his influence on Friday when touting his tax priorities to benefit the middle and lower classes.

“I'm on the Finance Committee,” the senator said. “I can do that.”

Rockefeller focused on children's health insurance, technology in public schools, mine safety and health care reform. He promoted President Obama's campaign to reshape health policy, acknowledging, “It's not particularly popular in West Virginia.

“But that's OK,” Rockefeller said of the Affordable Care Act signed in March 2010. He said the legislation will “benefit West Virginia more than any other state.”

That directness is a Rockefeller hallmark, said Pennsylvania's Sen. Bob Casey Jr.

“You got a sense very early of his passion and what drove him, but he was very collaborative,” said Casey, D-Scranton. “He was not someone who would be ambiguous about his point of view.”

For Republicans at the national level, Rockefeller's retirement is a positive development, said University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik.

“Whether they can capitalize on it and other opportunities is an open question,” Kondik said.

November 2014 will bring elections for 35 Senate seats — 21 of them held by Democrats and 14 by Republicans. Kondik said those numbers “would seem to benefit the Republicans.”

He said West Virginia, which threw its electoral votes to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney in November, is probably the GOP's best pickup opportunity. Republicans could win a narrow majority in 2014 if they hold seats and win Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia, Kondik said. Romney won those states in 2012.

Traditionally a stronghold for moderate and conservative Democrats, West Virginia has begun to crack its Democratic foundation. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin endured two tough election battles, and Republicans claimed a 2-to-1 edge in the state's three-person congressional delegation in 2010.

Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of Glen Dale is the clear front-runner for Rockefeller's seat, said political analyst Neil Berch. Capito announced her candidacy in November.

“But she has faced some opposition from national Republican groups accusing her of being too moderate,” said Berch, a political science professor at West Virginia University. The Tea Party and the Club for Growth “are not thrilled with her,” he noted.

Berch pointed to Rep. David McKinley of Wheeling, a rare GOP opponent of Wisconsin's Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan, as a possible rival for Capito.

The Democrats have a deep bench. Carte Goodwin, a Charleston attorney who briefly served as an appointed senator after Byrd's death, is viewed as a possible candidate for Senate or for Capito's House seat. Another is Democratic Rep. Nick Joe Rahall of Beckley, a top target of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Other Democratic possibilities include West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Senate President Jeff Kessler, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Treasurer John Perdue.

Tomblin also could run, Kondik said.

“It would be his third statewide race in four years, but he would be running from safety — as would the other statewide office holders.”

The Associated Press contributedto this report. Salena Zito and Adam Smeltz are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Zito can be reached at 412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com. Smeltz can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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