Robert Byrd Mulls Flying into Retirement

Robert Byrd may retire rather than seeking to surpass Strom Thurmond as the longest-serving U.S. Senator, the Associated Press reports.

Byrd mulls flying into retirement – Legend faces re-election battle of his career – if he runs (AP)

Photo: A road sign for Robert C. Byrd Drive can be seen in Beckley, W.Va. May 16. Byrd will become the longest serving senator in U.S. history in June 2006, surpassing Strom Thurmond. W. Dayton Whittle/AP Nationally, Robert C. Byrd may wear a Republican bulls-eye – the senator atop the GOP’s electoral hit list for 2006. But in Sophia, the town of 1,301 he left for Congress some 52 years ago, he is still very much the favorite son.

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It’s hard to forget Byrd in Sophia. After all, the main road into town was christened Robert C. Byrd Drive in 1991 after he helped secure the money to build it. The 17-mile stretch of four-lane highway is one of at least 32 monuments to West Virginia’s senior senator. Others include a high school, two federal courthouses, a radio telescope complex and buildings on at least eight college campuses across the state.

Byrd is on track to become the longest serving senator in U.S. history in June 2006, surpassing Strom Thurmond; he’s already the sitting member with the lengthiest tenure. But as he considers running for a record ninth term, he faces what might be the toughest battle of his political career.

Though the 2006 general election is more than 18 months away, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has already started an Internet-based campaign to oust Byrd. Almost daily, it e-mails Byrd-related story ideas and relays articles, columns and even blogs critical of the senator. “They said that same thing about me in 1982,”Byrd told The Associated Press. “I know exactly where the people of West Virginia are. … When they get Robert C. Byrd, it’s a product that they know.”

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His wife of 67 years, Erma Ora, is seriously ailing. She has her “good days and bad days,”Byrd said, but when he asked her if he should run, her response was “Yes, that’s a given.”

There is also a question of his own health. The oldest sitting member of Congress, Byrd will turn 89 in November 2006. He’s exhibited trembling in his hands for several years now. Byrd has dismissed it as a “benign essential tremor,”a “cosmetic malady.” A former butcher who worked in shipyards in Baltimore and Tampa as a welder during World War II, Byrd remains mentally sharp, supporters say. At the recent groundbreaking for the latest project to bear his name, a new pharmacy school in Charleston, Byrd quoted the poet Edwin Markham from memory and included the names of several people in the audience in his remarks.

But such rhetorical flourishes, and his penchant for allusions invoking ancient Greece and Rome, may not translate well for modern voters – particularly if voters already see him as frail. His grandiloquence already cost him one job. In 1989, after 12 years as Senate majority leader, colleagues made it clear they wanted a more plainspoken spokesman.

Byrd hasn’t lost an election since he ran for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946. After two terms there and one in the state Senate, Byrd was elected to the U.S. House for three terms before winning his Senate seat in 1958 with 59.2 percent of the vote. He’s carried all 55 counties in the state in four of his eight Senate bids. His best showing was in 2000, when he brushed off token opposition with 77.8 percent of the vote and all but seven of the state’s 1,970 voting precincts. In 1976, he ran unopposed.

This time, he will be challenged. U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, may be the Republicans’ best candidate, but she says only that she is “interested.”

Last month, Hiram Lewis, a 34-year-old lawyer who has twice run unsuccessfully for office, declared his candidacy for the Republican nomination at the West Virginia Capitol – beneath a larger-than-life statue of Byrd that declares him “West Virginian of the 20th Century.” The statue, an exception to a Capitol rule that an honoree must be dead for at least 50 years, reflects Byrd’s status as a legend, throughout the state and up and down Robert C. Byrd Drive. “He’s always been an icon,”said Eleanor Kidd Locklear, 65, whose father worked alongside Byrd at the local butcher shop before his election to Congress. “We know our area is taken care of when we have him behind us. And I’m a Republican.”

Byrd has long been adept at bringing federal dollars to his state, fulfilling his pledge to become “West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry” by 1991. He’s helped secure another $1.6 billion for the state since 1999, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

Byrd’s use of his seniority to virtually pave over the state of West Virginia on the U.S. taxpayers’ dime has made him infamous around the country. It has made him nearly unbeatable in his home state, however. It’s almost inconceivable that he would fail to get re-elected if he chose to seek a ninth term.

Below is a listing of some of the places named after Byrd:

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.