A special election this year would mean candidates could run without giving up the office they currently hold, which would likely entice a big field into the race.
One West Virginia Democratic source said there are two competing schools of thought on which party would be bolstered by a 2011 election. One holds that the Republicans still have momentum from the 2010 election, and would be better off holding the election while the wind is at their backs. The other says that it would be significantly less time to build name ID and the groundwork for a campaign, and due to the Democratic Party's superior infrastructure in the state, they would benefit from the shorter time line.
Republican strategist Greg Thomas agreed that momentum could help the Republican candidate if the election were held this year. "But I think there's a pretty decent argument to be made too where if it was put off to 2012, knowing that Pres. Obama's going to be on the top of the ticket, that might even be more of an advantage for a Republican candidate," he said.
Thomas noted that one wild card factor that could change the dynamics if the election is held in 2012 is the redistricting process. "I think if the Democrats are too clever with redistricting, maybe then you would see a candidate like [freshman Rep. David] McKinley (R) or Capito consider running for governor or another statewide race if their congressional seat was put into danger," said Thomas. "That's why I don't think the Democrats will actually do that. Because everybody who's controlling redistricting, everybody who's going to have a real say in redistricting, wants to run for governor," referring to Tomblin, Thompson, and Kessler.
A November poll conducted by Mark Blankenship Enterprises showed that on a generic ballot for the gubernatorial race, Democrats and Republicans are nearly tied, with 37 percent of voters saying they would likely vote Democratic, 34 percent saying Republican and 29 percent saying they are undecided.
If the decision comes down to hold the race this year, it should be the one to watch. And it's possible the outcome of the election, if held this year, could even affect Manchin's race in 2012.
"If we had an election here in 2011 and the Republicans won the race, and continued the success that we had in the 2010 election," said Thomas, "I think that certainly could encourage a more high-profile, credible candidate to get involved in the U.S. Senate race as well."