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There Is No Such Thing As a Free Shot at a Senate Seat

Late word out of West Virgina tonight: the state legislature has resolved its differences and determined to hold a special election to replace Robert Byrd in November, rather than waiting until 2012. Joe Manchin, the popular incumbent governor, is expected to announce as the Democratic candidate.

This will shift attention to the state’s lone Republican representative, Shelly Moore Capito, who represents the second district which cuts through the middle of the state. Under the terms that the legislature agreed to — apparently with Manchin’s blessing — Capito would be allowed to run for both the Senate and House simultaneously.

So, what does Capito have to lose? Perhaps not all that much; her opponent in WV-2, Virginia Lynch Graf, has a charming website that appears to have survived intact from the GeoCities era, and is not expected to present much of a challenge should she be distracted from that race.

Still, this is not a riskless move for Capito. If you look at the list of representatives who vacated their seat to run for Senate, but then lost, it’s surprising how few of them came back to have a viable career in elected office. The question relevant to Capito is why. Is it because they’ve given up the trappings of incumbency such as easier access to capital? Or is it because the loss causes them to suffer reputational damage, i.e. they are branded as losers? If it’s the former, this is not a situation that will apply to her, since she’ll almost certainly win the election for her House seat. But if the risk is reputational, it could be more salient to her.

Elections tend to be viewed through a relativist lens. In reality, Capito would enter the election being rather popular — 59 percent of the state’s likely voters have a favorable opinion of her, according to the only poll of the matchup from Rasmussen. But Manchin is even more popular: 80 percent of the voters have a favorable opinion of him, according to the same survey, which favors him over Capito by 14 points. By the time we get to November, the (remarkable) fact that we have two relatively popular candidates running for office might be forgotten about, and if she really does lose to Manchin by 15 points, or 20, she’ll be the one Republican who couldn’t get it done in a cycle where they were winning races all over the map. That could harm her reputation among the national activist and fundraising base, and possibly open up a window for another candidate, such as one of the two Republicans running in the 1st and 3rd congressional districts this year, both of whom are in competitive races.

The other thing is that Capito has a pretty decent hand to play if she stands pat. She would probably be the favorite to become West Virginia’s governor in 2012, were she to want that office. Or, she could elect to challenge Manchin then: the special Senate term lasts only two years, until Byrd’s term would have expired anyway. Manchin might not be so popular two years hence — ask Blanche Lincoln or Evan Bayh about what it’s like to be a centrist Democrat these days. And although the presence of Barack Obama on the ballot could make 2012 more difficult for Republicans in other states, that won’t necessarily apply in West Virginia, where he is quite unpopular.

Failing that, Capito could run for what might be an open Senate seat in 2014, when Jay Rockefeller, who will be 77 at the time, could retire. So this will hardly be her last chance, and it will certainly not be her cleanest one.

If Capito would prefer to be governor to senator, then running for Senate now — for a two-year term that is liable to be fairly lame duck-ish — seems like a distraction that would carry mostly downside risk. If being in the Senate is her long-term goal, however, it is obviously a much closer call.

Personally, I think I’d need at least a one-in-four chance of actually defeating Manchin this year to bear the reputational risk. Instead, our forecast model — based on the Rasmussen poll and a regression analysis — gives her only a 9 percent chance of winning. But this is a weird election — Manchin might shed some popularity vacating his office two years early — and either decision is probably reasonable.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.