CHARLESTON – Joe Manchin hasn't moved out of the governor's mansion yet, and Earl Ray Tomblin hasn't take over gubernatorial duties. But talk of West Virginia's next governor already has begun.
Gov. Manchin soon will become Sen. Manchin after his victory in Tuesday's election to fill the seat long held by the late Robert C. Byrd.
And, because the president of the state Senate becomes governor when the job is vacant, Tomblin is the one in line -- unless there is a power grab in December to unseat Tomblin, D-Logan, as Senate President.
Regardless, there will be an election – possibly in 2011 – to replace Manchin as governor.
Currently, state law says that if a governor leaves office in the first three years of a term, the state must hold an election to fill the vacancy. But questions remain about when that election must be held.
Earlier this year, Charleston attorney and former Democratic Party Chairman George Carenbauer told MetroNews TalkLine host Hoppy Kercheval, "It is undetermined whether the acting governor can call for the special election to take place almost at the end of the term, effectively keeping him or her in office for an extended period."
On Wednesday, Carenbauer said there is little we can be sure of in the coming months regarding the governor's position.
"We know Manchin will be governor until he goes to Washington, and we know Tomblin will be governor at least until January when the legislative session begins," Carenbauer said. "Beyond that, who knows. But I think this succession issue will be addressed in a special session or in the regular session and there likely will be a court challenge."
Tomblin, who is rumored to have interest in the job, has said he thinks the state doesn't need to have an gubernatorial election until the regular 2012 vote. And it is yet undetermined if Tomblin could serve as both acting governor and Senate president.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, has said he thinks a special election needs to be held soon to name Manchin's replacement. Thompson said Wednesday he will be running for governor whenever the election takes place.
Charleston attorney Thornton Cooper already has said he plans to file a lawsuit against the state to push for an immediate election for governor because Legislative lawyers have said they believe Tomblin can serve the remaining two years of Manchin's term without holding an election.
In addition to Tomblin and Thompson, other Democrats who could end up on the gubernatorial ballot are Marshall County state Sen. Jeff Kessler, Kanawha County state Sen. Brooks McCabe, state Treasurer John Perdue and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. Among Republicans, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, former Secretary of State Betty Ireland, state Sen. Clark Barnes and Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia could run.
Political analyst Robert Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan University, said the best way to predict the future is to look to the past. He referred to this summer when Byrd died.
"There seemed to be an intrinsic grassroots reaction to have someone elected as soon as possible," he said. "In this poitical climate, appointed beside an official's name makes voters very uneasy. Not just voters, actually. Any appointed politician, I think, would want to have an election as soon as possible.
"I hate to go against lawyers, but from a political viewpoint, I expect an election very soon, like this spring."
With so many potential candidates, Rupp said the next few months certainly will be interesting.
"It all means we're in a time of transition and flux," he said. "I can't remember when we've had so many announced candidates so early. This means we're going to have another very condensed, highly charged political atmosphere around this race.
"It's a new era. It wasn't just Byrd passing. We had a competitive Senate race, and we have this upcoming gubernatorial saga. Change might not be what we wanted, but it's what we're getting."