- Associated Press - Thursday, January 29, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - As U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin considers a 2016 return bid for governor, Republicans hope to block West Virginia’s most prominent Democrat from handpicking his Senate successor for two years.

Should he reclaim his old job, Manchin will have served enough of his Senate term that the governor - potentially him in 2017 - could name the next senator through 2018.

The appointment would guarantee that the Democratic Party holds a crucial seat for at least another two years.

After a bruising 2014 election, Manchin is in the Senate minority for the first time in his short tenure. In his state, he’s the last Democrat standing in Congress.

Big Republican gains also shook up the statehouse. With majorities in the House and Senate for the first time in more than eight decades, Republicans have the numbers to stymie Manchin’s ability to name a potential replacement.

Republicans already have drafted an election law change requiring special elections, not appointments, in cases like Manchin’s. The change would also clear up a fuzzy area of state law, said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

For the senator frustrated by Washington, D.C. gridlock, the proposal could further complicate a decision between the Senate and Governor’s Mansion. He plans to pick by spring or summer.

Manchin declined to comment on the vacancy process through a spokesman.

“I would not want to see a situation where we have an appointed senator for two years,” Armstead told The Associated Press. “I don’t think that’s true to what the founding fathers intended for the United States Senate.”

Manchin first entered the Senate amid appointment-versus-election ambiguity, as well.

After longtime Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd died in June 2010, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said Manchin technically was supposed to pick someone to fill the seat until 2012. That’s when the seat would next be on the ballot. Byrd’s death came after the 2010 primary, but before the general election.

In an opinion, Attorney General Darrell McGraw later said there could be a special election on the November 2010 ballot.

And in July 2010, Manchin called lawmakers into special session to pass a one-time fix setting an August primary and November general election that year.

Manchin tapped his former general counsel, Carte Goodwin, as a senator until the election, which the former governor ultimately won. Voters kept Manchin in office in 2012.

After a subsequent change to the law, many vacancies would only be filled at the next regular election if they occur more than 84 days before the primary. Otherwise, there would be an appointment and the race will coincide with the next regular election.

But the law still doesn’t apply uniformly, Armstead said.

“There’s no real rhyme or reason for how we go about doing it,” Armstead said.

Special elections aren’t cheap, though. Their turnout also tends to be terrible.

It cost the secretary of state $3.1 million for the special 2010 primary and the extra ballots in the general election. Only 12.3 percent of registered voters cast primary ballots, a new low.

Additionally, Manchin triggered another 2011 special election by leaving the governor’s office. Turnout was again historically bad - 16 percent in the primary, 27 percent in the general election. Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin won the contest.

Democratic leadership hasn’t seen the election law change bill draft yet.

But, generally, voters should get to pick their elected leaders, said Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said it seemed a change would be wrongly directed just at Manchin, though.

“I think the public wants the right to choose who their elected officials are, but at the same time, I don’t think they want election after election after election, which is what we just experienced,” Miley told The Associated Press.

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