CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- First lady Michelle Obama told attendees at a fundraiser Monday it's critical West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant becomes the state's next U.S. senator.That's not an endorsement, a Tennant campaign spokeswoman said Tuesday, and further tried to distance Tennant from the deeply unpopular Obama administration.Tennant attended the New York fundraiser, said spokeswoman Lisa Duvall. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee hosted the event, with tickets selling for anywhere from $250 to $50,000, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, New York Times and other media reports.The 2014 elections are key if Democrats want to maintain their six-seat majority in the Senate, Obama said, according to a transcript of her speech."So it is critical that we elect Michelle Nunn, Alison Grimes, Natalie Tennant. It is critical we get them to the Senate," Obama said, mentioning two other potential female Democrat Senate candidates."What the first lady said is not an endorsement," Duvall said in an email.Duvall didn't elaborate about Obama's statement, other than to say, "This race is about West Virginia, not Washington."Duvall used the same phrase after Vice President Joe Biden didn't endorse Tennant during a speech earlier this month at a dinner in Charleston. Biden spoke at the event honoring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, who announced January he's not seeking re-election.
It's common for West Virginia Democrats to keep President Barack Obama and administration policies at arms length.The state overwhelmingly supported GOP challenger Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations curbing carbon emissions and the Affordable Care Act, also known as "Obamacare," are similarly unpopular.As such, Republicans in the state are typically quick to link local Democrats and national party leaders.The campaign for Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Tennant's likely challenger next November, pounced on the first lady's comments."At a New York City fundraiser (Monday) Michelle Obama urged New York City donors to give money to Natalie Tennant so that they can pass gun control and protect Obamacare," said campaign manager Chris Hansen.
"Natalie Tennant took the money. Once again this proves that as soon as Natalie Tennant gets out of West Virginia she embraces gun control and Obamacare."Obama championed the massive health care reform law, gun legislation and other administration policies during the Monday event.
Although Obama didn't mention anything about energy, Duvall also included the issue in the list of administration policies Tennant doesn't support."Natalie Tennant has been clear that she is an independent voice who vehemently disagrees with the administration on a number of issues that are important to West Virginians, including gun rights, supporting the coal industry and the roll out of the Affordable Care Act," Duvall said.Tennant has repeatedly criticized the EPA since announcing her candidacy in September, recently pledging to "take on the Obama administration to protect West Virginia's coal industry."She also supports delaying the penalty for not having insurance in the first year the Affordable Care Act is in effect. Tennant issued a statement calling for the delay a day after Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said he was working on a measure that would delay the penalty.Tennant's said little publicly about guns at all since the start of her Senate campaign.During her speech Monday the first lady did mention "commonsense gun legislation" that recently failed by a slim margin in the Senate.
In the spring, Manchin co-sponsored a measure that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases at tradeshows or on the Internet.Duvall didn't elaborate as to how Tennant differed from the administration on gun rights, but did comment on Manchin's bill."Sen. Manchin had good ideas for keeping guns from the hands of criminals and mentally ill," Duvall said."Natalie opposes any effort to restrict law-abiding West Virginians' right to own guns, just as she and her family do."National Republicans believe the race is one of their best chances to pick up a seat in the Senate and national political analysts currently rate the race in the GOP's favor. Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.