- - Thursday, September 19, 2013

Democrats got their woman this week, but West Virginia Republicans say they remain confident they will pick off the state’s open U.S. Senate seat in a race that could go a long way toward determining who runs the chamber in 2015.

West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat strongly backed by the party establishment, jumped into the race Tuesday, setting up a November 2014 battle with Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito for the seat of retiring five-term Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV.

The race could represent a watershed for the state: Although West Virginia has gone for the Republican in the past four presidential elections, the Democrats’ historic hold at the state level has held firm. If Mrs. Capito, 59, wins, she would be the first Republican elected to the Senate from the Mountaineer State since the middle of World War II.

While Ms. Tennant is seen as her party’s best hope, West Virginia Republican Party Executive Director Ward Wyatt says the unpopularity of President Obama and his administration’s environmental agenda in coal country is helping energize the party rank and file.

Ms. Tennant “doesn’t support West Virginia’s values,” Mr. Wyatt said. “We are absolutely confident that our candidate has a better record of standing up” for coal mining and job creation.

The Rothenberg Political Report also sees a tough road for the Democrats, rating the race right now as “lean Republican.”

The nonpartisan West Virginia Poll released an early survey last month giving Mrs. Capito an early 5 percentage point lead in a head-to-head matchup with Ms. Tennant — just outside the poll’s 4.9 percent margin of error.

West Virginia figures to be a critical battleground in the 2014 midterm race, with Republicans needing a net gain of five seats to gain effective control of the U.S. Senate.

Ms. Tennant, 45, in her announcement Tuesday took pains to stress her own independence from her fellow Democrat in the White House.

“I will fight any Republican or any Democrat — including President Barack Obama — who tries to kill our energy jobs, whether they are coal, natural gas, wind or water.”

State Democrats argue that Mrs. Capito is vulnerable on issues such as jobs, health care and Social Security, traditional Democratic strengths.

Ms. Tennant “definitely supports the values and her opponent doesn’t, and that is to make sure that if you paid into Social Security you still deserve it.” said Larry Cuccio, West Virginia’s Democratic Executive Committee chairman.

The 76-year-old Mr. Rockefeller, a former governor who won his 2008 race with 64 percent of the vote, is retiring after nearly 30 years in the Senate. He announced his retirement in January, a few months after Mrs. Capito revealed plans to challenge him in the next general election.

In addition to the coal issue, Republicans think they will have a clear edge next year as Mr. Obama’s health care law is rolled out, predicting it will remain deeply unpopular with swing voters.

Ms. Tennant “is a proponent of Obamacare, which West Virginians stand very prominently against,” said Conrad Lucas, chairman of the Republican Party Executive Committee. Mr. Lucas also said that Ms. Tennant as secretary of state failed to stand up to the Environmental Protection Agency and acted, in his words, as “an apologist for the EPA.”

One factor complicating Republican hopes is lingering suspicion of Mrs. Capito from influential conservative forces within the party. Both the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and former Sen. Jim DeMint’s Senate Conservatives Fund have questioned her credentials as the party’s best nominee.

Analysts say the political landscape in West Virginia remains in flux because many voters embrace conservative values but have not fully transformed into a red state like many Southern states because of the presence of still-powerful mining unions and a tradition of voting Democratic.

That tradition has been shaken by Mr. Obama’s ambitions for combating climate change and his support for the EPA’s plan to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. Mining industries in West Virginia fear that too much reform could limit coal consumption and, in turn, cut jobs and tax revenue in the state.

The fact that the Democrats have dominated West Virginia’s Senate seats for the majority of the past century has Republicans seeing 2014 as the chance for a breakthrough.

“The Democratic Party in West Virginia’s motto is, ‘Getting the job done.’ The fact of the matter is, they’ve had 80 years to get the job done and they’ve only hurt the state,” Mr. Wyatt said.



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