U.S. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV announced today he won’t seek a sixth term next year, posing a challenge for Democrats to keep the seat representing West Virginia.
“As I approach 50 years of public service in West Virginia, I’ve decided that 2014 will be the right moment for me to find new ways to fight for the causes I believe in and to spend more time with my incredible family,” Rockefeller, 75, said today in Charleston, West Virginia.
His departure will give Republicans an opportunity to pick up a seat in a state where President Barack Obama received only 36 percent of the vote last year.
Seven-term Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito, 59, announced Nov. 26 that she would run for the Senate seat. Rockefeller, chairman of the Commerce Committee, first won his office in 1984.
Republicans have lost 21 consecutive Senate races in West Virginia dating back more than half a century. The state votes Democratic in most statewide elections, including for governor and the state legislature, though voters have favored the Republican candidates in the last three presidential races.
West Virginia’s other senator, Democrat Joe Manchin, won re-election in 2012 with 60.5 percent of the vote following a campaign in which he sought to distance himself from Obama. Manchin didn’t attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, and refused to say whether he was voting for Obama.
“When Capito announced her intentions, that made it a serious contest, and now Rockefeller’s retirement raises the stakes even higher” in the state’s 2014 Senate race, said Nathan Gonzales, political analyst for the non-partisan Rothenberg Political Report in Washington. “It should have been one of the top races in the country, but now we have to wait and see who Democrats nominate.”
The Cook Political Report, a non-partisan Washington group that tracks congressional races, rated the West Virginia contest a toss-up before Rockefeller’s announcement today.
The first Republican woman to represent West Virginia in Congress, Capito on Nov. 6 won 69.8 percent of the vote in her district. It encompasses about one-third of the state, including Charleston, the state capital. Capito is the daughter of former three-term Republican governor Arch Alfred Moore Jr.
Capito said when she announced that she decided to run in part because “the Senate has been basically dysfunctional over the past several years.” She entered the race less than three weeks after Obama became the first major-party presidential nominee in history to lose all 55 West Virginia counties.
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in a statement, “Democrats maintain nearly a two-to-one voter registration advantage over Republicans in West Virginia and I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state.”
Democrats and independents aligned with them control 55 seats in the 100-member Senate. The party will be defending seats next year in several other states that Obama lost, including Louisiana, Montana and North Carolina.
Rockefeller, a former two-term West Virginia governor, pledged that during the rest of his Senate term he will keep up his “no-holds-barred approach to solving problems that affect people’s lives.”
He is the great-grandson of oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller, and his wife is the daughter of former Senator Charles Percy, an Illinois Republican. His uncle, Nelson Rockefeller, was governor of New York and served as vice president under Republican President Gerald Ford.
Obama, in a statement, praised Rockefeller for building “an impressive legacy” in his state, “one that can be found in the children who have better schools, the miners who have safer working conditions, the seniors who have retired with greater dignity, and the new industries that he helped bring to West Virginia.”