Jay Rockefeller (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Sen. Jay Rockefeller's retirement sets the stage for a high-stakes 2014 campaign battle, but Democrats are confident they can keep the West Virginia seat in the party's hands.
Rockefeller, 75, said Friday he will not seek re-election next year to a sixth term to the Senate. The senator, a former two-term governor and scion of the wealthy Rockefeller family, said he wants to spend more time with his wife, children and grandchildren.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican who has been in the House since 2001, said in November that she was running for the Senate because it was time for a "new and diverse voice."
Rockefeller's decision "certainly makes Shelley Moore Capito the front-runner for the seat," said Neil Berch, a political science professor at West Virginia University.
West Virginia presents challenges for both political parties in statewide elections. President Obama is unpopular in the state and lost to Republican Mitt Romney there by nearly 27 percentage points. But the last Republican elected governor of West Virginia was Cecil Underwood in 1996.
"I think West Virginia has a tradition of sending Democrats to Washington, but also has a sent a number of Republicans to Washington over time," said former congressman Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va. He declined to say whether he would run for the Senate next year.
Sen. Michael Bennet, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, hailed Rockefeller's service and said he believes Democrats are in good position to hold the West Virginia seat. Democrats have 20 seats to defend in the 2014 election, including in states such as Montana and Arkansas, where Obama is unpopular.
"I am confident we can elect an independent-minded Democrat to his seat next November," said Bennet, D-Colo. "Democrats maintain nearly a 2-to-1 voter registration advantage over Republicans ... and I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state."
Berch said the Democratic bench is deep. He cited U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, state House Speaker Rick Thompson, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Carte Goodwin, a lawyer who was an interim U.S. senator after Robert Byrd died in 2010, as possible Democratic candidates.
Rockefeller currently serves as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, which plays a role in a host of issues such as transportation, science and interstate commerce. He has sparred in recent years with the state's coal mining industry and has been a staunch Obama supporter.
As a senator, Rockefeller is known for his work on health care and as the co-author of the Children's Health Insurance Program. During the most recent fight over health care, Rockefeller was a champion of the "public option," a government-run health insurance program. It did not make it into the final version of Obama's health care law.
"Jay was a tireless and successful advocate for our nation's children, and he was a leader in expanding their access to health care," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said in a statement. "Jay's wisdom and guidance will be sorely missed by his colleagues, but his service in this body will resonate for decades to come."
Rockefeller, a great-grandson of oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, is one of the Senate's wealthiest members. He first came to West Virginia in 1964 to work on anti-poverty programs and stayed in the state to build a political career.
The senator's family is also something of a political dynasty. Rockefeller's uncle, Nelson, was a moderate Republican who served as governor of New York and was U.S. vice president under Gerald Ford. Winthrop Rockefeller, another uncle, was a Republican governor of Arkansas in the 1960s.