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Post-Byrd situation in W. Va remindful of “Minnesota Massacre”

Post-Byrd situation in W. Va remindful of Minnesota Massacre
By Eric Black

There will apparently be another U.S. Senate seat on the ballot this November, and one more opportunity for the Repubs to make the 10 pickups they need for their still longshot (but not as longshot as it used to be) drive to take over control of the Senate.

When Sen. Robert Byrd died, the most common understanding was that Gov. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, would appoint a caretaker to serve until the scheduled end of Byrd’s term in 2012. Now Manchin has asked for a ruling on whether he can appoint a shorter-term caretaker and schedule a Senate election for this fall. As of today, the state’s attorney general says yes, if the guv calls a short special session of the Legislature to settle filing deadlines and other details, a special election can be held this November with the winner to serve out the last two years of Byrd’s term.

Manchin seems to be heading this way. He has also said he is interested in seeking the seat. He is also the most popular politician in the state (a recent Rasmussen poll shows him beating any likely rival for the Dem nomination and shows him with a mighty impressive 77 percent approval rating). He would be the presumptive frontrunner against the current crop of likely Repub nominees.

From the beginning of the Byrd succession issue, Manchin has said that one thing he won’t do is resign his seat and allow his Lt. Gov. appoint him to fill out the remainder of the term.

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Old-timers won’t need this reminder but perhaps it’s worthwhile for those whose acquaintance with MN politics is less than 30 years old.

In 1977, when Walter Mondale vacated his Senate seat to become vice president, the extremely popular second-term DFLer Governor Wendell Anderson decided to make himself senator by resigning on the understanding that his Lt. Gov Rudy Perpich would appoint him to serve out the remaining two years of Mondale’s term. Anderson was so popular that he quite possibly could have waltzed into that seat under any other circumstance (although you could argue that 1978 was shaping up as a Republican year and Rudy Boschwitz, who had been gearing up to run against Mondale, would have been a formidable opponent anyway).

Anderson’s notorious decision, known as the “self-appointment,” destroyed his popularity (undermined Perpich’s, too), seemingly in the instant it was announced. Run for the office, Wendy, and we’ll probably vote for ya, but it’s just not right, seemly, humble nor democratic to appoint yourself, Minnesotans said, seemingly with one voice.

Hubert Humphrey, who occupied the other Minnesota Senate seat, died in Janury of 1978, setting up a special election to fill that seat at the same time. In a most rare occurrence, Minnesota had both Senate seats and the governorship on the same ballot in November 1978. Minnesota hadn’t elected a Repub senator in decades at that point, but in what became known as the Minnesota Massacre (although the term is borrowed from a much more serious 1862 incident from Minnesota’s history), the Repubs won all three top statewide races. (The winners were Boschwitz over Anderson, Dave Durenberger over DFL nominee Bob Short for the Humphrey-vacated seat, and Al Quie over Perpich for Guv.) None of the races were even slightly close. Wendell Anderson, who had been absolutely the shining rising star of DFL politics until the moment of the self-appointment, never sought public office again.

Thirty years later, when MPR did a lookback at 1978 and asked Anderson about the self-appointment, he said:

“I think that was a big mistake, and I think taking a knife and cutting both my legs off would also be a big mistake.”

Okay, I don’t know if West Va. Gov. Manchin has made any reference to this, but it seems clear that he knows about it and he gets it because he has seized every opportunity to say clearly that he would not arrange for his own appointment. He’s probably pretty nervous about even arranging the special election for fear that something he does will come across to voters as using his guv powers to seek unfair advantage.

He is uniformly described by political observers as a very popular governor and the likely front-runner in the Senate race. But West Virginia is a red state, at least in presidential elections (although it hasn’t elected a Republican to the U.S. Senate since Byrd first won in 1958). That same Rasmussen poll mentioned above shows Pres. Obama with a 35 percent approval rating in West Virginia, and 64 percent disapproval. So even a popular Dem. guv may have problems in that environment, when his election could be portrayed as good for Obama.

Nate Silver the political statistics maven of FiveThirtyEight politics, who is working on a model for predicting the Senate races, says Manchin would be favored, but only very slightly, assuming the Repubs nominate one of their top office-holders, someone with pre-existing name recognition and a record of political success.

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It’s still hard to see exactly how and where the Repubs pick up 10 Senate seats, but it’s not as hard as it was a month or two ago with Dem incumbents in California and Wisconsin looking more endangered than they did. Now West Virginia is one more chance for Repubs to plot and dream.