In what has to be the best news for the Republicans this year, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) has decided to hang up his hat and not run for reelection in 2014. Had he decided to go for it again, he would have won easily, given his combination of money, seniority, and connections.
Despite being from one of the wealthiest families in the world, he went to dirt-poor West Virginia as a poverty worker when he was a young man. He later decided he could do more for the people of West Virginia by being in politics. So he ran for the state House of Delegates and won in 1966, then served as Secretary of State. In 1976 he was elected to the first of his two terms of governor and in 1984 he won the first of six elections to the Senate. Despite his great personal wealth, he has always been a fairly liberal senator and sided with his party on most issues, including health care, taxes, and programs for the poor.
West Virginia used to be a very blue state. Jimmy Carter carried it twice, as did Michael Dukakis, and Bill Clinton (twice). Since 2000, it has gone for the GOP. Nevertheless, (Blue Dog) Democrats can carry the state. All six statewide officers (governor, Secretary of State, State Auditor, State Treasurer, Commissioner of Agriculture, and Attorney General) are Democrats, as are both senators. All the Republicans control are two House seats.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) has announced her intention to run for Rockefeller's seat. She also comes from a political family: her father served two terms as governor. He also served 3 years in federal prison for corruption. Moore is a moderate conservative, much in the mold of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Even though she is by far the Republicans' best candidate to pick up this seat, she is virtually certain to be primaried by a tea party candidate, presenting yet another opportunity for the Republicans to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (think: Christine O'Donnell's Senate race in Delaware in 2010).
What happens next depends on what both parties do. Any one of the statewide officers could make a run here, with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin having the best shot since he is widely known in the state. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) ran for the Senate while governor and won, so Tomblin could do it, too. He would have to bash President Obama during the campaign and carry around a lump of coal to lovingly pet during campaign appearances, but it would be doable. Of course, there could be nasty primaries in both parties. The DSCC could take sides in the primary (or better yet, before the primary) to try to reduce the amount of fratricide but the NRSC can't do that to help Capito. The far right is likely to run a candidate no matter what the NRSC wants.
The bottom line is this. If Capito gets knocked off in a bloody primary and the Democrats can settle on one candidate quickly, the Democrats might be able to hold the seat. Otherwise, it is likely to be a GOP pickup. Given how many vulnerable Democrats are up in 2014, this is a seat the Democrats can ill afford to lose.