Guy Benson

Senate Republicans have their work cut out for them after last year's unmitigated electoral disaster.  To reclaim Congress' upper chamber, the GOP needs to net six seats in the 2014 midterm elections.  That task is a bit of a longshot, but this piece of breaking news brightens the picture a smidgen: 
 

Sen. Jay Rockefeller will not seek a sixth term representing West Virginia. The 75-year-old Democrat has recently sparred with the state's mining industry over the future of coal, and he has supported President Obama, who is deeply unpopular in West Virginia. Rockefeller tells The Associated Press that public service has dominated his life for a half-century. He said he plans to retire in 2014 to devote more time to his family and vowed to remain a West Virginian. Friday's announcement is sure to set off a scramble for the seat. Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito has already said she will seek it in 2014. Rockefeller arrived in the state as an anti-poverty worker in 1964. His subsequent political career has also included two terms as governor.  


This seat may seem like a plum pick-up opportunity for Republicans, but West Virginia is politically enigmatic.  The population is heavily Democratic going back generations, but they've been a reliable red state at the presidential level in recent cycles.  To wit, in 2012, Mitt Romney destroyed President Obama by 26 points in the Mountain State -- but Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, who regularly carries water for Obama, won re-election by a similar margin.  Two of the state's three Congressional races went red (the GOP wins were blowouts, the lone Democratic victor prevailed in a closer contest), but the governorship remained in Democratic hands, albeit fairly narrowly. That being said, family and political brands run deep and strong in the state, so the lack of Rockefeller's name on the ballot in and of itself represents a major opening for whomever Republicans nominate.  As the story above notes, the party has recruited Rep. Shelley Moore Capito -- a moderate Republican with a decently strong brand in West Virginia -- to seek the soon-to-be open seat.  Some have speculated that the prospect of facing this strong challenger may have contributed to Rockefeller's decision to throw in the towel after five terms.  Even so, a handful of conservative groups have already raised hackles about Capito's voting record, which deviates from conservative orthodoxy on a number of fronts.  Will this opposition be enough to derail a strong candidacy?  

Big picture: Republicans have a relatively robust chance of beating 2014 Democrat incumbents in Alaska (Begich), Arkansas (Pryor), Louisiana (Landrieu), and North Carolina (Hagan).  Rumored retirements in Iowa (Harkin) and South Dakota (Johnson) could render those seats very competitive, too.  Add West Virginia to the mix, and you're up to seven emininently gettable seats.  Then sprinkle in a few outside shots in New Jersey, Colorado and possibly even Montana (if Max Baucus hangs it up), and you're looking at an intriguing array of paths to 51 votes.  Plus, don't forget about Massachusetts.  Meanwhile, on the other side of the ledger, every single Republican-held seat up next year appears to be safe at the moment.  Truth be told, Republicans were similarly situated heading into the 2012 cycle, but the combination of a strong leftward presidential undercurrent and several inept Republican candidates allowed Democrats to improbably gain two seats.  Will the GOP primary process complicate another chance to cut into Democrats' edge, and possibly topple Harry Reid?  I'll leave you with the National Republican Senatorial Committee's initial statement on Rockefeller's decision to retire:
 

“Senator Rockefeller’s decision not to seek reelection makes West Virginia an even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2014. Voters next year will have a clear choice between a Democrat who will be a loyal vote for President Obama and Harry Reid as they try to kill West Virginia’s coal industry and bankrupt our country with reckless government spending, versus a Republican who will serve as an effective check-and-balance on their liberal agenda and work to get our country’s economy back on track.”  


Capito's official campaign website is here.


UPDATE - Today calls for a quick flashback to a particularly low moment in political discourse, courtesy of the man of the hour:
 

In the Charleston Gazette Sunday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-WV, who has endorsed Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said that Sen. John McCain "has a temper" and, according to the story, "believes McCain has become insensitive to many human issues. "McCain was a fighter pilot, who dropped laser-guided missiles from 35,000 feet. He was long gone when they hit. What happened when they [the missiles] get to the ground? He doesn’t know. You have to care about the lives of people. McCain never gets into those issues."  


Guy Benson

Guy Benson is Townhall.com's Senior Political Editor. Follow him on Twitter @guypbenson.

Author Photo credit: Jensen Sutta Photography