CHARLESTON – With less than a year before the primaries and a few announced candidates, the 2012 race for the state Supreme Court is starting to take shape.
Current Justice Robin Jean Davis has said she is running for re-election for the two seats up for grabs. Justice Tom McHugh – who took his seat on the bench after the death of Justice Joseph Albright and then was elected to finish that term – has said all along he wouldn't run again in 2012.
On the Democratic side along with Davis, Tish Chafin will officially announce her candidacy soon. And Republican John Yoder – who ran against McHugh in 2010 – is running.
Those are the three definite candidates, but other names have been bandied about and mentioned. Based on conversations with sources who are closely watching the supreme court race, let's take a look at the announced and possible candidates:
Some people have discussed Davis being a possible replacement for a vacant seat on the U.S. Fourth Circuit bench. But as President Obama's first term comes to an end, it seems unlikely a Democratic nomination would be about to get through, especially with the legal challenge to "Obamacare" still up in the air.
A native of Boone County, Davis has won two statewide races before. She and husband Scott Segal are wealthy, and she's also shown that she can raise money for a campaign. She has a reputation as a capable judge. Even most of those who disagree with her rulings ideologically say she's a solid jurist. She's an incumbent, which always seems to be an advantage in West Virginia, but that notion might be changing. Also, she is the author of the Caperton v. Massey ruling, and some might make a campaign issue of that even though she is the daughter of a union coal miner.
In short, Davis is a formidable candidate.
Like Davis, Chafin has money from her and husband Truman Chafin's law practice. But unlike Davis, she never has held a public office before. She was president of the state Bar, but the Tom Tinder story might bring scrutiny to that position, even if she was president after Tinder's alleged actions.
Chafin is a capable candidate. She might not have a great "wow" factor, but she has her husband's experience, clout and political abilities on her side. Some criticized her during her tenure as state Bar president for her travel across the state as a "pre-announcement tour" because most people knew she was considering a Supreme Court run. Also, being the wife of a prominent state Senator could be good or bad for Chafin's campaign. Who knows how that plays out.
Also, in the recent state battle for a U.S. Senate seat, Joe Manchin made an issue of John Raese's and his spouse's dual residency in West Virginia and Florida. So the issue could be fair game with Chafin as Truman always has dodged the issue of where they live.
With Chafin, she's an unknown political commodity. But she can't be ignored. You could say she shares that trait with current Republican presidential possibility Michele Bachmann.
A circuit judge from the Eastern Panhandle, Yoder has run two statewide campaigns before. His close loss to McHugh might have been a surprise to many, and that can't be ignored in 2012 because it might be a Waterloo for Democrats. Basically, he spent less than $10,000 and came within a few percentage points of defeating a well-known and respected Democrat who has a long record of being fair.
But people have questioned his relatively short judicial career and criticized him for never leaving the Panhandle. Plus, he's never really had a tough race that tested him.
It also should be noted that Yoder has made it clear he plans to use public financing if it's out there and survives the likely legal challenge. That would require him raising $30,000 to qualify, which is more than he's ever had to raise for an election.
Beth Walker ran on the Republican side in 2008, and she ran against a heavy national Democratic tide. Still, she came close. She showed that she could put together an organization and could raise money. She has name recognition. But she and her husband just moved to Morgantown, and a statewide campaign could be tough on a young law practice.
J.D. Beane, a Wood County judge, has made it known that he would love to run for Supreme Court. But he's not been a circuit judge very long, and he's never been involved in a tough campaign.
Christopher Wilkes, another Eastern Panhandle circuit judge, has a reputation as a good judge and a good person. The Panhandle's power grows yearly, and a Republican could draw a lot of support from the business community. But he also has never tested the waters statewide.
Jim Rowe, a Greenbrier County circuit judge, ran a solid campaign against Justice Warren McGraw in the 2004 Democratic primary. He's seen as a conservative and a quality jurist, and he weathered a rough and tough fight against McGraw in 2004. He also could get major support from the business community, and he has a good base of supporters.
Warren McGraw, who now is a Wyoming County circuit judge, could be considering a run for the Court again. Unions would love to have someone like McGraw back on the bench, but union pull in elections has eroded since he last attempted a statewide campaign in 2004.
Darrell McGraw, the current state Attorney General, also could be seen as eyeing a return to the Court. But that isn't a likely scenario.
Other names have been rumored. Those include Kanawha County judges Duke Bloom and Tod Kaufmann, Jackson County judge Tom Evans, Putnam County Prosecutor and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark Sorsaia, Kanawha County lawmaker Tim Armstead and West Virginia University law professor and previous candidate Bob Bastress.
And if public financing becomes a reality, who knows who else might consider a run. Someone like Thornton Cooper might jump in.
Some of these names – such as Armstead and Sorsaia – also could be considered Republican challengers to Darrell McGraw in the 2012 race for Attorney General. Also, state Republican Party chairman Mike Stuart could enter that race.