CHARLESTON — Friday’s news that West Virginia’s senior U.S. Senator won’t seek a sixth term next year brought cheers in some circles and handwringing in others.
Still others reacted to word that 75-year-old Democrat John D. “Jay” Rockefeller would step down after five terms in Washington by simply expressing gratitude for his decades of service to the Mountain State.
“Public service demands and very much deserves nothing less than every single thing that you have to bring to bear,” Rockefeller said during a speech at the Cultural Center on the Capitol complex in Charleston. “And that’s what I have given it. I’ve been driven to make life better for people here. That’s not a slogan for me. It’s the truth. And an obsession.”
Within minutes of Rockefeller’s declaration, national commentators were speculating that the move could cost his party a Senate seat firmly in Democrats’ control since 1958.
Democrats, now enjoying a 55-45 edge in the Senate, will defend 20 seats when voters go to the polls in 2014 while Republicans will have 13 seats on the ballot.
U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a well-regarded Republican and the daughter of Rockefeller’s frequent political foe Arch A. Moore Jr., announced in late November that, whether or not Rockefeller retired, she would run for the seat in 2014.
First elected in 2000, she won a seventh term Nov. 6 with about 70 percent of her district’s vote. And West Virginia is growing more Republican: The GOP picked up 11 seats in the Legislature in 2012; only one of the state’s three U.S. House seats now is held by a Democrat.
Statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans among registered voters by a margin of 640,000 to 358,000, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. More than 222,000 others are registered with no party affiliation.
It’s likely Rockefeller’s support for tougher regulations on mountaintop removal coal mining and his alignment with President Barack Obama on environmental issues and health care reforms would have made for a tough campaign against Capito.
In the 2012 race, Obama failed to win a single county in West Virginia.
Rob Collins, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said Rockefeller’s decision not to seek re-election “makes West Virginia an even stronger pickup opportunity for Republicans in 2014.”
“Voters next year will have a clear choice between a Democrat who will be a loyal vote for President Obama and Harry Reid as they try to kill West Virginia’s coal industry and bankrupt our country with reckless government spending, versus a Republican who will serve as an effective check-and-balance on their liberal agenda and work to get our country’s economy back on track,” Collins said.
No Democratic front-runners have yet emerged for Rockefeller’s seat.
During his speech Friday, Rockefeller cited accomplishments he felt most proud of, including the stance he took in 1992 when he threatened to keep the Senate in session over Christmas break if lawmakers didn’t OK legislation preserving retirement benefits for miners and their families.
It passed, he said, and a nationwide strike was averted. “In that fight, and so many others, I’ve been proud to stand with the working men and women of America,” he said. “I know the coal companies are going after me. I can live with that, because I know that I am fighting every day for coal miners.”
Long an advocate for better access to health care, Rockefeller also has been hailed for shaping the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Rockefeller, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, and previously served at the helms of Intelligence and Veterans’ Affairs, is the last in his high-profile family to take an active role in politics.
The senator’s late father, John D. Rockefeller III, was a well-known philanthropist; his uncle David Rockefeller ran Chase Manhattan Bank; another uncle, Republican Nelson Rockefeller, served as the 49th Governor of New York, unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination three times and then became President Gerald Ford’s vice president, serving from 1974 to 1977.
Another of Rockefeller’s uncles, Republican Winthrop Rockefeller, in 1967 won a term as governor of Arkansas.
Rockefeller on Friday said he wants to spend more time with his wife of nearly 46 years, public broadcasting exec Sharon Percy Rockefeller, their four children and six grandchildren.
Said Obama: “Jay has built an impressive legacy, 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.”
U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, the sole Democrat representing West Virginia in the House, recalled Rockefeller’s words at his first gubernatorial inauguration. “He told us, ‘My name is Rockefeller, but that will not pay our bills.’ He gave us more than his family name. He pledged his heart, mind and strength to us that day. For almost half a century, Sen. Rockefeller’s service to his state and its families has never wavered from that commitment.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A look at key dates in Jay Rockefeller’s life, career:
1937: Great-grandson of famed tycoon John D. Rockefeller – founder of Standard Oil Co., the nation’s first billionaire – is born in New York City
1961: Completes degree in Far Eastern culture and history from Harvard University (following three years of study in Japan) and joins Peace Corps’ National Advisory Council
1964: Arrives in Emmons, a community on the Big Coal River in Kanawha County, as a volunteer with the VISTA national service program.
1966: After changing party affiliation from GOP to Democrat, wins a seat in the House of Delegates, representing Kanawha County
1967: Marries Sharon Percy, the daughter of U.S. Sen. Charles Percy, an Illinois Republican, in an April Fool’s Day ceremony in Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of University of Chicago
1968: Elected to first statewide office, becomes West Virginia’s Secretary of State
1972: Wins the Democratic nomination for governor, but after championing an end to strip mining (and getting labeled a job-killing Yankee environmentalist) loses to incumbent Arch A. Moore Jr.
1973: Begins tenure as president of West Virginia Wesleyan College
1976: After abandoning his opposition to strip mining, wins office as West Virginia’s 29th governor (defeating Republican past and future governor Cecil Underwood)
1980: He wins re-election, spending nearly $12 million of his own money and inspiring this bumper sticker slogan from Moore supporters – “Make Him Spend It All, Arch”
1984: As Ronald Reagan leads a Republican landslide nationwide, he captures the U.S. Senate seat opened by the retirement of liberal icon Jennings Randolph and kicks off talk as a Democratic contender for the White House, perhaps in 1988 or 1992
2012: In November, learns powerhouse Republican Shelley Moore Capito (the state’s Second District Congresswoman since 2001 and daughter of his old rival Arch Moore) plans to seek his Senate seat, whether he runs again or not
Friday: Calling it “entirely a personal decision … not a political decision,” announces he plans to retire and won’t seek a sixth term in 2014