The West Virginia Waiting Game

West Virginia’s political class is in a holding pattern as the state’s highest court decides whether the state has to have a special gubernatorial election this year after Joe Manchin (D) vacated the governorship in 2010 for his successful Senate bid.

The timing of the next gubernatorial race – either this year or next – would have a significant impact both on who runs and which party would have the upper hand. And already, strategists and a host of potential candidates on both sides of the aisle are considering all the possibilities.

On Tuesday, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals heard oral arguments in the lawsuit. The case, brought by the West Virginia Citizen Action Group against acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D), state House Speaker Rick Thompson (D) and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D), seeks to move the special election for the seat vacated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D) up to sometime this year.

Justices expressed concern that there was a separation of powers issue with the court being asked to decide when and how an election should occur, something that falls under the purview of the legislature in the West Virginia constitution. But they also expressed skepticism of Tomblin’s argument that though a “new” election is called for, it doesn’t necessarily have to take place prior to the regularly scheduled 2012 election, even calling that argument an “uphill climb.” Although no specific timeline has been given, justices are expected to decide quickly on the case.

The outcome of the case will have immediate repercussions on the sizeable field of candidates who’ve set their sights on becoming governor.

Former Secretary of State Betty Ireland (R) has already declared for the race. Tomblin is expected to run. Numerous other politicians have expressed interest, including Thompson, acting state Senate Pres. Jeff Kessler (D) and Brooks McCabe (D), Tennant, Treas. John Perdue (D), and state Sen.Clarke Barnes (R). The state GOP chair, Mike Stuart, is another who has talked about mulling a run. And there is some speculation that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), the state’s most popular Republican elected official, could decide to run — if she doesn’t opt instead to challenge Manchin in 2012 or Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) when he’s up for re-election in ’14. And even Chief Justice Robin Davis had to recuse herself from the court case because she has plans to run for statewide office in 2012, though she hasn’t identified which one.

Read more from Julie Sobel at Hotline On Call

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