CHARLESTON, West Virginia — West Virginia's House of Delegates faces a momentous decision after Speaker Rick Thompson departs for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Cabinet: choosing a new leader will help set the stage for 2014, when Republicans aim to wipe out the Democrats' ebbing majority.
With Thompson slated to resign next month to head the Department of Veterans Assistance, Tomblin's ability to advance his legislative priorities may be tested once delegates elect a speaker.
The midterm election prospects have Minority Leader Tim Armstead looking at ways the House might end up with a GOP speaker. November gains increased his party's ranks to 46 of 100 seats, its largest share in decades. The Kanawha County Republican plans to emphasize his caucus' as-yet-unsuccessful push for such measures as an intermediate appeals court and a constitutional amendment targeting non-real estate property taxes.
"Unfortunately, the (current) leadership has been unwilling to put those issues to a vote," Armstead said. "If there's a Democratic speaker, unless they're much more willing to adopt many more of the programs that the Republicans have been fighting for, I don't see the people of West Virginia embracing them."
Armstead's chances rely on peeling away just a handful of Democrats. But that failed to happen when battles during the recent regular session came down to close roll call votes. GOP attempts to amend or derail Democratic proposals were routinely rebuffed during the 60 days. The majority also kept together when it elected Thompson for his fourth term as speaker over Armstead in January.
The Democrats' more immediate choice is whether to stick with Thompson's leadership team. The emerging candidates include Majority Leader Brent Boggs of Braxton County, Finance Chair Harry Keith White of Mingo County and Judiciary Chair Tim Miley. Each has cited what's at stake for their party, which also holds a majority in the Senate, the executive branch's elected offices and the state Supreme Court.
"Whoever the speaker might be has a heavy burden in terms of maintaining a Democratic majority and pursuing the Democratic ideals of moving West Virginia forward," said Miley, a Harrison County lawyer. "The next speaker is at great risk of 'one session and done'... I know that (the Democratic Party) will be far more active in the upcoming election ... You'd want to do whatever you can."
Republicans netted 11 seats in 2012, in part after quietly funding several political action committees that targeted districts considered battlegrounds with attack ads. The Democrats had no comparable game plan, with its legislative incumbents receiving support instead from labor union PACs to mixed effect.
"We don't just need to maintain the majority. We need to grow it," said Boggs, a railroad engineer. "We need stability ... I think we need to make minimal changes right here in mid-term. We need to get this taken care of in a manner that's as amicable as possible ... We need a unified House."
Thompson himself was an outsider when he first won the speakership. Then-Speaker Bob Kiss was leaving the Legislature in 2006 when Thompson overcame his majority whip, Scott Varner, when the party caucus nominated its choice that November. Given that precedent, third-term Delegate Doug Skaff is weighing a run for speaker.
The Kanawha County business owner is not strictly a back-bencher. Skaff chairs a minor committee and is one of 10 assistant majority whips. Following Thompson's announcement last week, the 36-year-old pledged to regain ground for his party while giving a strong voice to its next generation of officeholders.
"I think we need to do something bold and drastic, which is why I'm throwing my name in the mix," Skaff said.
Tomblin was largely successful this session, his first since winning a full term as governor in November. The Legislature passed all but four of his agenda's 32 proposals, including its centerpiece plan to improve public schools and another major bill tackling inmate crowding. White said that while the House always has its own priorities, working with the governor remains important.
"I think the governor will remain pretty aggressive with his agenda moving forward when it comes to job creation and education," White said. "Whoever ends up sitting in that seat, I think we all agree that has to happen in West Virginia ... I think it's very important going forward that we try to work together on those issues."
Once Thompson resigns, Tomblin has 10 days to call the House into session to choose a new speaker. The delegates in each party traditionally hold separate closed-door caucus meetings to nominate a candidate, and then the full House votes. Tomblin also must appoint someone to Thompson's then-vacant seat representing Wayne County. A special party executive committee will recommend names for that decision.
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina