Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia was first elected to the Senate in 1958, and has barely had to break a sweat in any of his numerous reelection races. However, West Virginia Republicans smell blood, and believe that Byrd could be vulnerable in 2006. There are several reasons to believe this to be so. First of all, Byrd will turn 89 years old a few days after the 2006 election, and he is beginning to show his age. For another thing, Byrd is a member of the minority in the Senate, and is thus unable to send quite as much pork to his home state as he did in the past when the Democrats controlled the body; with 55 Republican Senators and growing, West Virginians know that Byrd will never again serve as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee. Moreover, Byrd's voting record has gotten more liberal as the years have gone by, and West Virginians have become more conservative; more importantly, West Virginians no longer appear to be willing to vote for politicians who oppose their culturally conservative values, as George W. Bush proved to Al Gore and John Kerry when he carried the state with 52% in 2000 and 56% in 2004.
And finally, and there is no delicate way of putting this, Senator Byrd is an unrepentant racist. When he first ran for state office, Byrd was not only a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but one of the "Kleagles" in charge of recruitment; a series of recent newspaper reports have brought to light the fact that Byrd had also received the title of "Exalted Cyclops" from the Klan's Grand Dragon and that in the late 1940s Byrd wrote letters referring to black Americans---even those who had fought for our nation in World War II---in the most degrading ways imaginable. Byrd was 30 years old when these things were going on, not exactly an adolescent, but any thought that his active involvement in the leadership of the worst terrorist group in the history of the United States was a "youthful indiscretion" is belied by the fact that Senator Byrd, the self-appointed "Conscience of the Senate," used the phrase "white niggers" on two occasions in the same 2001 television interview to describe whites with certain disreputable characteristics. As West Virginians find out about Byrd's past---and present---it becomes more difficult for them to avoid realizing that he is an embarrassment to all West Virginians and, indeed, all Americans.
But can he be defeated? As the saying goes, you can't beat somebody with nobody, and Byrd has not faced a top-tier GOP challenger in decades. For 2006, though, the Republican Party of West Virginia believes that it has finally found a dragon slayer (or at least an Exalted Octopus slayer): Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. Capito is the daughter of former Governor Arch Moore, one of the few West Virginia Republicans to have been a successful politician during the past half century. But Capito is a successful officeholder in her own right, having been elected and reelected to Congress from a district that hadn't elected a Republican in decades while being greatly outspent by a millionaire Democrat candidate. However, while Capito might be able to defeat Senator Byrd, I don't think she is the GOP's best possible candidate to run against Byrd. In fact, I don't even think she's the best female candidate for the Republican Party.
The optimal candidate for the West Virginia GOP is Secretary of State Betty Ireland, who was elected statewide in 2004. One of the main reasons why I believe this is because West Virginia is a heavily pro-life state, and the abortion issue could be Byrd's undoing, just as it was for Gore and Kerry. Capito is pro-choice on abortion and, while she voted for the partial-birth abortion ban, so did Byrd, so Capito wouldn't really be able to differentiate her position on abortion from Byrd's position in a way that could attract the socially conservative, economically liberal voters that compose the largest segment of the West Virginia electorate. Betty Ireland, on the other hand, is pro-life, and would be able to call on West Virginians to vote their conscience and elect a Senator who shares their concern for unborn human beings. The overwhelming majority of candidates endorsed by the non-profit group "West Virginians for Life," including Betty Ireland, won in 2004, and Ireland would be able benefit from the pro-life movement in ways that Capito could never do.
Second, Ireland ran statewide in 2004 in a highly contested Secretary of State race against an octogenarian West Virginia Democrat legend in Ken Hechler, a former Congressman and Secretary of State. Ireland showed respect towards Hechler throughout the race, thus avoiding the trap of turning her elderly opponent into a victim, but pointed out their differences on the issues, and was able to win in spite of the Democrat candidate winning the governorship handily (although, of course, Ireland was helped by President Bush's campaign in the state). If anyone knows how to defeat an octogenarian Democrat West Virginia icon in a statewide race, it's Betty Ireland.
Third, Ireland isn't up for reelection as Secretary of State until 2008, so she can run in 2006 without jeopardizing a position held by the GOP, and even if she loses she'll still be able to run for reelection in 2008. Capito, on the other hand, would have to vacate her House seat to take on Byrd, and the Democrats would have a pretty good chance of winning the open seat that Capito won for the first time in 2000 by a slim margin and which before Capito had been represented by Democrats for decades.
So having Betty Ireland run would give West Virginia Republicans their best chance of defeating "Sheets" Byrd, while being a less risky alternative than having Shelley Moore Capito give up her House seat to run for the Senate. I think Senator Elizabeth Dole, Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, should give her fellow pro-life conservative a call and convince Ireland to return a sense of decency and conservative values to West Virginia's U.S. Senate delegation.