By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., June 28, 2010 — Sen. Robert Byrd — the most important coal-state legislator in the country — had barely checked into the hospital last week before speculation began about who might succeed the 92-year-old Democratic legend if he were to die. When Byrd died on Sunday, the rumor mill kicked into high gear, focusing on just one question: how would West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin position himself to succeed Byrd.

For coal interests, it’s an important issue. Over the past few years, Byrd had moved his views from coal stalwart toward a less enthusiastic stance. He became opposed to mountain top removal mining and softened on climate change. Manchin has consistently backed the coal industry.

There’s no question Manchin wants to succeed Byrd. The 62-year-old, scion of a politically potent Democratic family, has been governor since 2005 and will be term limited out of office in 2012. Political analyst Steve Kornacki, writing in Salon on Sunday, noted, “Manchin is quite ambitious and has let it be known in West Virginia that he has national aspirations. Earlier this year, he formed his own [political action committee] for national political activity — Country Roads PAC — and he’s slated to become the chairman of the National Governors Association later this summer.”

Byrd’s health has been an issue for some time, and Manchin has said publicly and repeatedly that he would not appoint himself to replace Byrd, whose term is up in 2013. An article in Politico on Monday noted, “Voters have a long history of ousting senators who used their power as governor to appoint themselves to the seat.”

That means Manchin, a very popular politician, could be setting up for a run in the 2012 election cycle. His likely Republican opponent, by most accounts, would be Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who represents the populous and more prosperous (thanks in major part to Byrd’s largess as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee) central slice of West Virginia, stretching from Martinsburg in the eastern panhandle through the capital of Charleston. She’s the daughter of former Republican Gov. Arch Moore, who served over two years in federal prison for corruption in the 1990s, on a conviction for extorting half a million dollars from a West Virginia coal company.

Capito has proven a popular and sure-footed politician in a largely Democratic state (although the state went for Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election, by 56% to 43%). None of the charges that tainted her father have ever touched Capito. Observers say she would mount a credible race against Manchin in 2012.

Newsweek on Monday reported that West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, has ruled that, under state election law, there will be no special election this year to fill the time left in Byrd’s seat (the filing deadline for the November election has passed). That gives Manchin the opportunity to appoint a caretaker to fill the seat until the 2012 election.

Naturally, speculation is rampant about a Manchin placeholder. The Washington Post mentioned former Byrd aide Anne Barth, who lost to Capito in the 2nd District 2008 race by a 57% to 43% margin; Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, 61, a Democrat who has long represented the 3rd District; former state Democratic Party leader Nick Casey, and current party chief Larry Puccio.

My money is on Casey or Puccio. Barth is politically ambitious and might want to keep the seat if she’s selected. Rahall would give up 33 years of seniority and chairmanship of the powerful House Resources Committee (where he is able to watch out for the interests of the coal industry).