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Tom Miller: Election showed modest gains for GOP in W.Va.

Nov. 06, 2010 @ 10:55 PM

The results of last week's general election show the Republican party not only made significant gains in national political power for the next two years, but also made some modest gains in West Virginia despite a 2-1 Democrat majority in registered voters.

The election's closest race was in the First Congressional District, where Republican David McKinley of Wheeling beat Democrat Michael A. Oliverio II of Morgantown by less than 1,400 votes. McKinley, who served 14 years in the House of Delegates from 1981-1994, won with an unofficial total of 89,815 votes to 88,558 for Oliverio.

Oliverio ousted Congressman Alan B. Mollohan in the May Democratic primary, ending a 42-year father-son career in Congress beginning when Alan's father, Robert, was first elected in 1969. Oliverio served 18 years in the Legislature, mostly in the state Senate before deciding to run for Congress.

McKinley will become part of the state's first Republican majority in the House of Representatives along with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who coasted to her sixth straight two-year term, since 1947-48 when this state had six members in the House and four of them were Republicans. Now, incumbent Democrat Nick Jo Rahall, who won his 18th straight term in the 3rd District, will be the lone Democrat in the House from this state.

An extremely low-key statewide race that proved to be closer than most people expected was the one between Democrat Tom McHugh and Republican John Yoder for a seat on the five-member State Supreme Court of Appeals. McHugh received 242,637 votes, according to the unofficial returns, to 229,941 for Yoder.

In the state legislature, Democrats solidified their hold in the Senate, gaining two seats to increase to a 28-6 majority. Republicans lost both seats in the 10th District formerly held by the late Don Caruth of Mercer County and Jesse Guills of Greenbrier County, who chose not to run for another term. And two House members, Del. Orphy Klempa, D-Wheeling, and Del. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, move to the Senate to take seats vacated by Oliverio and retiring Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock.

But Republicans picked up a half dozen seats in the House of Delegates and will now have 34 members, enough to deny Democrats the 67 votes needed for a two-thirds majority necessary on many procedural votes that speed up legislation.

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It's no surprise Gov. Joe Manchin is now avoiding the controversy about how soon West Virginia voters should get to elect a new governor. He said last week he won't call a special session before he leaves office to take up the possibility of an election early in 2011 to fill the remainder of his term as governor because there is no consensus between the House of Delegates and state Senate on this issue.

There is no sense calling the legislature into session when there is no real hope of resolving this question. As soon as Manchin resigns as governor to take the oath as the newest U. S. senator -- probably next week -- state Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, will become acting governor because he is also the state's lieutenant governor.

Tomblin believes he has sufficient legal opinions to overcome those in the state who want a special statewide election to choose a new governor in 2011. Many of those are his potential rivals for the job whenever the next election is held -- currently not until the next regularly scheduled general election in November of 2012.

Congresswoman Capito, now the recognized leader of elected Republicans in the state, believes it would be wrong to deny voters the chance to elect their governor for another two years. She wants a special election scheduled early in 2011 because "we can't have an unelected governor for two years. I think that disenfranchises all of us." There are growing numbers of Republicans who would like to see her run for the job. It's unclear whether her father, former two-term Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., is in that group.

House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, is one of those who wants to run for governor as soon as possible. Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, also are potential candidates. But Tomblin, who also has been planning to run for governor in 2012, doesn't want to alter the current election schedule.

It's only two months until the regular 60-day session of the 2011 Legislature convenes in Charleston on Jan. 12. There seems to be little chance that a bill to schedule a special gubernatorial election in 2011 could get through the state Senate where Tomblin presides anytime before the adjournment on March 12.

Legislators from both parties who don't have a major stake in the outcome of this dispute -- i. e. those who aren't planning to run for governor -- seem to be more inclined to let the judicial branch of state government resolve this matter. There is already talk of a lawsuit that will be filed later this month, but how long it would take to resolve these issues in the courts may eliminate the possibility of a special election anytime in 2011.

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The importance of allowing voters to cast their ballots early in statewide elections in West Virginia was not as evident in last week's general election results as state officials had earlier predicted. More than 108,000 people voted early, more than in the off-year election in 2006 when only about 67,000 people voted early.

Still, the total unofficial vote count as reported by the Secretary of State's office last week was just over 526,000, which is less than 44 percent of the total 1.2 million who were registered to cast ballots -- not the 50 percent turnout some officials had predicted. It did beat the 2006 off-year figures, though, which were the first results after early voting was authorized. Only about 42 percent of the voters cast ballots in that election.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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