WHEELING, W.Va. — West Virginia Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler plans to ask voters for a promotion in 2016, as the Marshall County Democrat filed papers Thursday in preparation to run for governor next year.
Kessler officially changed his pre-candidacy status at the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, a move that allows him to form an exploratory committee for a gubernatorial bid.
“The filing period isn’t until January of 2016, but we’re already a quarter of the way through 2015, so it will be here before you know it,” Kessler said. “If it’s something you’re going to do, you need to start organizing and fundraising.”
Kessler unsuccessfully sought the Democrat nomination for governor in the 2011 special election which elevated Earl Ray Tomblin to the chief executive’s post, replacing Joe Manchin upon his move to the U.S. Senate. But this time around, Kessler figures to have significantly more name recognition, with four years as Senate president under his belt and a 2015 session in which he proved to be a vocal opponent to the new Republican majority in the Legislature as minority leader.
Kessler said many of the initiatives Republicans advanced this year, such as Common Core repeal, charter schools and right-to-work legislation, “crashed and burned” at the end of the session.
“It seemed like a lot of what they were doing was repealing, repealing, repealing,” he said.
Kessler called many of those initiatives “radical and extreme,” and said he believes West Virginians are looking for a more moderate approach to government.
“I’ve had a history of being pro-Second Amendment, pro-life. I’ve not been averse to necessary tort reform when we’ve needed it,” he said. “We’ve been willing to be innovative but also compassionate to make sure everyone has a chance to be successful, not just those at the top.”
Although he said his leadership style is more vocal than Tomblin’s, Kessler said the governor – who is term-limited in 2016 and cannot seek re-election – has been an effective, fiscally responsible leader. He said he would prefer to look for other ways to balance the budget other than dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, but he believes the expansion of Medicaid in West Virginia will go down in history as one of the major highlights of Tomblin’s term.
“He provided insurance for over 180,000 people in our state that didn’t have it before, and that makes our state healthier,” Kessler said.
Kessler’s announcement sets up a potential showdown with Manchin for the Democrat nomination. Manchin hasn’t made any commitments but said he’s considering running for his old job in 2016.
Kessler declined to speculate about a possible primary contest with Manchin.
“I haven’t really even looked at that at this point. I don’t have any control over what anybody else does, honestly. I can only control what I do,” he said.
On the Republican side, Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., told media outlets last week he’s also considering a run for governor, though he has yet to make a decision. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has said he’s keeping his options open for a possible run at the GOP nomination in 2016.
Kessler, 59, has been a member of the state Senate since November 2007, when he was appointed to fill the vacancy created by Larry Wiedebusch’s death. He was re-elected to a full four-year terms in 2008 and 2012.
He served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee prior to his appointment as acting Senate president in January 2011. He was sworn into the position permanently in November of that year after Tomblin’s inauguration as governor.
He lost that position this year after Republicans assumed leadership of the Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years, but members of his party tapped him to serve as minority leader.