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Rockefeller's Exit May Test How Deep The Red Runs In W.Va.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced Friday that he won't seek re-election in 2014 and will retire after having served 30 years in the Senate.
Chip Somodevilla
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Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced Friday that he won't seek re-election in 2014 and will retire after having served 30 years in the Senate.

The announcement from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., that he will not seek a sixth term in 2014, would seem to give Republicans a big opening in a state that has gone deep red in recent presidential elections.

But West Virginia's animus toward recent Democrats in the White House, especially President Obama, doesn't necessarily translate into Republican advantages in statewide races.

Both senators, the state's governor and one of its three members of the House are Democrats. And the state that produced legendary Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd (who brought the state "billions of dollars for highways, federal offices, research institutes and dams," as The New York Times noted in its 2010 obituary) hasn't elected a Republican senator since the 1950s.

"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 announced in a statement.

Rockefeller, 75, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, has been a senator for 28 years from his adopted home state.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., already had said she would run for Rockefeller's Senate seat in 2014.

The Washington Post reports that a slew of Democrats could be in the mix as well:

"The crowded 2011 Democratic gubernatorial primary may offer hints about which Democrats are likely to take the plunge in the Senate race. The runners up to current Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin include Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, state House Speaker Rick Thompson, and state Treasurer John Perdue, among others. The state's only Democrat in the House delegation, Rep. Nick Rahall, is another possibility, as is former Sen. Carte Goodwin, who served for a brief stint in 2010."

West Virginia voters overwhelmingly backed Republican Mitt Romney in November, with Obama getting only 35.5 percent of the vote, after garnering about 43 percent four years earlier.

But that may be more a reflection of Obama and his particular politics than Democrats as a whole. Obama lost every county in West Virginia in 2012 after a campaign in which Romney hammered him for the president's so-called "war on coal," in a state with a large and hurting coal mining industry.

But the state backed the Democrat in the presidential race as recently as 1996, when it voted for the re-election of Bill Clinton by a wide margin.

The great-grandson of oil giant John D. Rockefeller and a wealthy New York City native, Rockefeller went to West Virginia in 1964 as a VISTA volunteer, and said he fell in love with the state, which was one of the poorest in the nation.

He won a seat in the state Legislature in 1966, became West Virginia's secretary of state two years later, and was elected governor in 1976 and again in 1980. He won election to the Senate in 1984.

"Serving West Virginia in the U.S. Senate is an abiding honor and privilege," Rockefeller said in a statement. "For the next two years in the Senate, and well beyond, I will continue working tirelessly on behalf of all West Virginians. Championing those most in need has been my life's calling, and I will never stop fighting to make a difference for the people who mean so much to me."

A strong supporter of President Obama's health care law, Rockefeller defended the controversial measure Friday in a speech in Charleston, W.Va., according to The Charleston Gazette. "I know it's going to benefit West Virginia more than any other state," Rockefeller said.

Democrats and those who caucus with them now hold a 55-45 advantage in the U.S. Senate. But Massachusetts Democrat John Kerry's confirmation as secretary of state would present an opening for Republican Scott Brown perhaps to rejoin the Senate later this year. And a third of the Senate seats will be up in the 2014 midterm elections, most of them now in Democratic hands.

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Greg Henderson