Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi will hold regularly scheduled gubernatorial elections this year, but West Virginia may do so as well. Next Tuesday, the state’s Supreme Court will begin to hear arguments on whether the state should hold a special election to replace former governor and now-Sen. Joe Manchin. Manchin vacated the governor’s seat on November 15, after winning the special election held to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, who had passed away in June.

The state Senate president, Democrat Earl Ray Tomblin, took over as acting governor when Manchin resigned and currently holds both positions. The grounds for requiring a new election is Article VII, Section 16 of the state constitution, which says that the Senate president may not act as governor for two years "without calling for a new election to fill the vacancy.” Tomblin’s attorneys have filed briefs with the Supreme Court in December contending that Tomblin should be allowed to remain governor until 2012,when the next regular gubernatorial election is scheduled to be held.

An Associated Press report published yesterday cited an anonymous administration officials to the effect that Tomblin will propose the state ask voters to amend the constitution to allow for a lieutenant governor, who would be elected alongside the governor, and would become governor if the officeholder resigns or is unable to perform. While this would take care of future vacancies, it would not resolve the current situation.

Bob Bastress, a professor of law at West Virginia University’s law school, believes that the state constitution does require a special election be held as soon as possible. However, predicting what the court will do is another matter, especially as one judge has already recused himself from the case.. “It is a court has been rearranged recently—40 percent of its membership has only been on for a year,” says Bastress. “It is a difficult thing to predict.” Bastress adds that even if the court were to order a special election, it lacks any means or precedent to enforce its order. It could, however, ask the legislature and the governor to abide by its decision “as a matter of comity.”

John Kilwein, an associate professor of politics at West Virginia University, says that there will be “a lot of latitude” for interested parties to lobby for or against a special election. Whenever the election is held, however, he says that it will be hard fought. “No matter what, it will be competitive, given the last senatorial special election,” says Kilwein.

Some influential civil servants, including the state’s House Speaker Richard Thompson, a Democrat who has expressed interest in running for governor, argue that the state’s constitution requires a special election before 2012. Some powerful organizations within the state share that position, including the West Virginia AFL-CIO and the state’s Educational Association. Both groups have filed amicus briefs which claim that Tomblin is violating the constitutionally mandated separation of powers by occupying both offices simultaneously, a situation the AFL-CIO predicts will lead to “legal chaos.”

Other Democrats who have expressed interest in a gubernatorial run include Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and state Sens. Jeff Kessler and Brooks McCabe. A Democrat has held the governor’s seat in West Virginia since 2001, when Bob Wise unseated Cecil Underwood, who served two non-consecutive terms (the first from 1957 to 1961).

On the Republican side, a number of potential candidates have filed pre-candidacy papers for a run, including former Secretary of State Berry Ireland, state Sen. Clark Barnes, former state Sen. Scott Regan, Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia and businessman Joseph Oliverio.

While these candidates can publically declare their intention to run, they cannot begin to raise money or assemble a campaign staff until the election is declared.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com