GOP wants to dethrone 'The Pork King'
By David M. Brown
September 4, 2005
Thanks to more than five decades in Congress, Byrd has stamped his name across the Mountain State with federally funded roads, buildings and other projects. He is the face of West Virginia politics.
So it surprises some people here in his hometown -- population 1,301 -- to hear talk about challengers. The 87-year-old Democrat could face the toughest battle of his career when he seeks a ninth term, analysts say.
That's because Republican President George W. Bush carried the Mountain State in 2000 and 2004, bringing new GOP voters to the polls in this long-time Democratic stronghold. Byrd also is harnessed with some thorny issues.
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2-to-1 in West Virginia. Bush won the state in 2000 by 6 percent. The victory margin in 2004 increased to 13 percent for the president.
"This is one of the most winnable races in the country," said Brian Nick, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
One of the stickiest issues for Byrd is his antiwar stance.
"We've got a state that turned from blue to red and an old politician still in power," said Robert Rupp, a political scientist at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. "It's gotten him some national prominence, but it may have some backlash in this highly patriotic state."
In central West Virginia, former Marine Aaron James, 29, of Flatwoods, said he has voted for Byrd in the past, but might not do so again. James, an Iraqi war veteran who owns a roadside farmer's market stand, is upset with Byrd's antiwar protests.
"That's an iffy ground to tread on," James said. "He didn't just tread on it, he stomped on it."
At least three candidates are planning to enter the Republican primary next spring for a chance to oppose Byrd.
Perhaps the greatest threat is U.S. Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-Charleston, the daughter of former Republican Gov. Arch Moore. Capito, a rising Republican star, stood with Bush at West Virginia University in Morgantown when he gave his Independence Day speech.
Some national Republicans are encouraging Capito, 51, to run against Byrd, while others are urging her to seek re-election to her 2nd Congressional District post, which is the safest bet to keep the House seat in the GOP column.
Capito told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review she will probably announce a decision late this month or in early October.
"There's an art of timing in politics," she said. "Events and the tide of the time sort of have more of an impact on where you can or should go, and what you should try."
Republicans already running include attorney Hiram Lewis, 34 , of Morgantown; Rick Snuffer, 44, a Raleigh County businessman and Methodist minister; and optometrist Zane Lawhorn, 47, of Princeton, Mercer County.
They cite various reasons for wanting to take on Byrd.
"It's all about the judges," Snuffer said.
Snuffer contends Byrd has a record of backing activist federal judges who push liberal agendas.
Lawhorn said a Republican senator would be more effective working with a Congress now controlled by the GOP. Democrats generally held power in West Virginia since the 1930s, yet the state lags far behind others in jobs and income and has some of the highest taxes in the nation, he said.
Lewis, a former Army Ranger and Iraqi war veteran, said Byrd's criticism of the Iraq war has been a serious blow to the morale of American troops.
"The average person on the street is pretty upset about his stance against the war," said Lewis, who announced his candidacy in April while standing beneath a larger-than-life statute of Byrd at the West Virginia Capitol. "When you go into a barber shop in a small town in West Virginia, the consensus is that he's served the state well, but it's time for change."
That remains to be seen. Byrd was elected to the U.S. House for three terms before winning his Senate seat in 1958 with 59 percent of the vote. In 2000, facing only token opposition, he was reelected to an eighth term with 78 percent of the vote.
Byrd is on track to become the longest serving senator in U.S. history, a record that could be broken by the middle of next year. The distinction now belongs to the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, a Republican who served in the Senate 48 years.
There are some similarities. Like Thurmond, Byrd has a segregationist chapter in his past. Byrd was a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s and filibustered against the 1964 civil rights bill. He later renounced those choices.
Byrd, the highest ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, has long been acknowledged as a master of manipulating federal appropriations -- so-called "pork" -- for public works and other projects in West Virginia. Critics have dubbed him "The Pork King."
In fiscal 1999, after Byrd secured $97 million for the state, Citizens Against Government Waste declared him the first person to get more than $1 billion in the watchdog group's history of tracking waste in government spending. He hauled in $399 million this year, according to the group's Web site.
"West Virginia has always had four friends," goes a quote attributed to Byrd. "God Almighty. Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd."
There is little chance his largess will go unnoticed.
The four-lane highway from Beckley to Sophia is one of more than 30 projects around the state that boast his name. Others include more roads and highway interchanges, a bridge and dam, a high school, a radio telescope facility, two federal court houses, and an assortment of buildings on college campuses.
Byrd declined requests for an interview for this story.
In opinion polls conducted in the spring, Byrd's favorable ratings were high, though other numbers in the survey could spell trouble. In separate polls paid for by the Democratic and Republican senatorial committees, Byrd had a 10 percentage point lead over Capito in both.
While 10 points is a decent lead a week before an election, the advantage is thin with more than a year to go, especially when a long-time incumbent is pitted against a relative newcomer, analysts say. Capito was elected to the U.S. House in 2000.
An independent survey by Charleston-based RMS Strategies, taken in May, showed Byrd barely ahead of Capito, 46-43 percent. The statewide poll of 401 registered voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, thinks the GOP strategy might be to discourage Byrd from seeking re-election.
"It's a game of chicken right now," he said. "The Republicans are going to show Byrd that's he's going to have to fight hard to keep his seat. Byrd wants to show the Republicans that he can't be frightened out of the race."
Byrd has yet to announce that he's running, although his aides say there's no doubt.
The GOP senatorial campaign committee spent about $50,000 in August running anti-Byrd television ads in West Virginia. The ads painted Byrd as out of step with the state's conservative values. Byrd responded with his own ad, charging the GOP wants to "privatize Social Security" and give "tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas."
Sabato thinks Capito would be a formidable rival. She is well-known because her father, a former three-term governor who remains popular despite his 1990 conviction for mail fraud. Moore served two years in federal prison.
"She's able to connect with people and they like her," Sabato said.
Byrd would be favored, but not heavily favored, in a race with Capito, he said.
WVU political scientist Robert DiClerico doubts anybody has much chance of unseating Byrd. West Virginians realize "to turn him out of office would be to lose the extraordinary benefits of seniority," he said.
Ed Collins, 41, a former coal miner who lives in Birch River, a mountain hamlet near a highway named for Byrd, agrees.
"Byrd's helped a lot," he said. "We love him to death."
Some of the funniest comedy I've ever heard wasn't found on television - it was listening to Virginians go on about their neighbors to the west.
Man, these guys reap what they sow.
didn't they get rid of daschle last time, after byrd maybe they can oust kennedy