CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With little to worry about in their May 13 party primaries, Natalie Tennant and Shelley Moore Capito are focused on a likely November matchup that could tilt the majority in the tightly contested Democratic U.S. Senate.
Either way, West Virginia is poised to make its own history. The state has never elected a female U.S. senator.
In a state that has taken a conservative turn, Democratic secretary of state Tennant and Republican congresswoman Capito are eyeing a seat that has been out of play since 1985. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller is retiring after five terms.
Pointing to President Obama’s unpopularity and tepid midterm conditions for Democrats, political analysts call Capito a heavy favorite. A GOP poll April 16-17 gives Capito a 16-percent lead. Tennant celebrated a January Democratic poll where she was losing by 6 percent.
Still, West Virginia has only sent Democrats to the U.S. Senate for 55 years.
The state hasn’t switched up the lineup much. Jennings Randolph had a 25-year Senate stint before Rockefeller. State icon Robert C. Byrd kept his seat for a half-century until he died in 2010. Popular conservative Democrat and former Gov. Joe Manchin locked up Byrd’s seat in 2010, with Carte Goodwin filling in for a few months as an appointee.
Tennant has endorsements from Rockefeller and Manchin, along with unions and pro-abortion rights groups. Capito has business interests in her corner — most notably, West Virginia’s coal industry.
In coal country, West Virginia Democrats like Tennant face scrutiny for the president’s energy policies, like proposed regulations on new coal-fired plants. Obama won just 35.5 percent of the statewide vote in 2012 and lost every West Virginia county. The state hasn’t opted for the Democratic presidential nominee since Bill Clinton in 1996.
Republicans say Tennant is guilty by association, pointing out she campaigned for Obama in 2008 and was a Democratic National Convention delegate in 2012.
“People are losing jobs. They’re pessimistic. They’re leaving the state,” Capito told The Associated Press. “And I think it has to lay at the feet of the party and the principles that have been in effect over the last several years.”
Like a handful of energy-state Senate Democrats facing re-election, Tennant has vowed to buck Obama and Senate leadership on coal. As a recognizable TV journalist for 12 years, Tennant is also leaning on a ground game where she plans to visit all 55 counties.
“West Virginians recognize that I’m an independent thinker and I’m an independent leader,” Tennant told The Associated Press.
Tennant hopes to paint Capito as a foot soldier for Republican House leadership, saying Capito backed national flood insurance rate hikes and voted to strip down Medicare by supporting the GOP budget. Like many Democrats, Tennant also criticizes Capito for opposing a gender equality pay bill, which Republicans say is already part of the law.
Despite that portrayal, political analysts say Capito is lucky to have avoided serious tea party competition.
Capito ranks in the middle of the caucus for voting with Republican leadership, according to vote tracker OpenCongress.org. And well-funded conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and The Heritage Foundation are less than enthusiastic about her record.
Capito’s most viable conservative challenger, former Republican state House delegate Pat McGeehan, struggled to raise money and ended his campaign in January.
Her only GOP primary opponent to show up at a Charleston Daily Mail editorial board meeting was Larry Eugene Butcher. The wispy-bearded 62-year-old, who has raised no money, wore an American flag bandanna with matching T-shirt.
With $4.2 million in the bank, Capito maintains a 4-to-1 cash advantage over Tennant, who entered the race 10 months later than Capito. Tennant nearly matched the congresswoman’s fundraising from January through March, which she interpreted as momentum for the campaign.