CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Natalie Tennant will face off in November’s general election, when West Virginia will elect a woman to the U.S. Senate for the first time.
Capito is favored to win November’s contest in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to the Senate since the 1950s. A Capito victory could help the GOP take control of the Senate for the final two years of President Barack Obama’s tenure.
Tennant and Capito easily won their respective party primaries Tuesday setting up a general election showdown to succeed Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat who is retiring after nearly three decades serving in the upper chamber.
Obama is deeply unpopular with many West Virginians, who take his administration’s proposed pollution rules on coal-fired plants, among other regulations, as an affront to the coal industry. Coal is not only a key facet of the state’s cultural identity - it’s a major economic driver. A statue of a coal miner stands in front of the state Capitol.
Republicans clearly want to use Obama’s poor standing to their advantage. For months, motorists in Charleston could see a billboard displaying a picture of Tennant at a 2008 Obama rally. “Natalie Tennant (hearts) Obama,” the billboard read.
“The stakes are high,” Capito said Tuesday night. She said her priorities as a senator would be “ending the war on coal” and rolling back “Obamacare’s devastating effect” on small businesses.
With more than $4 million in the bank, Capito has built a 4-to-1 cash advantage over Tennant by running as a moderate from the polarized, GOP-controlled House. She avoided a tea party-fueled challenge from the right, despite less-than-enthusiastic reviews of her voting record by well-funded conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and the Heritage Foundation.
West Virginia’s coal industry backs Capito, 60, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $200,000 promoting her late last year, federal campaign finance records show.
Capito was first elected to the House in 2000. She defeated Tennant’s husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, in a 2004 House race.
Tennant has the backing of unions and abortion rights groups, and she has tried to distance herself from the president by vowing to be an independent voice on energy issues.
On Tuesday night, she cast the contest as a battle between big money politics and blue-collar grit.
“I view this race as a clear choice between the Washington politics and Wall Street dollars that Congresswoman Capito represents, and the West Virginia values and working families that I represent,” Tennant said.
A former television reporter in West Virginia, Tennant was the first woman to serve as West Virginia University’s Mountaineer mascot. She’s served as West Virginia’s secretary of state since 2008.
She’s banking on her name recognition and outside spending help from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to overcome Obama’s unpopularity and tepid midterm conditions for Democrats.
A GOP poll last month gave Capito a 16-percentage-point lead. Tennant celebrated a January Democratic poll that showed her trailing by 6 percentage points.
Open Senate seats are a rarity in West Virginia politics. Jennings Randolph, a Democrat, had a 25-year Senate stint before Rockefeller’s five terms. State icon Robert Byrd, also a Democrat, kept his seat for a half-century until he died in 2010. Former Gov. Joe Manchin, a popular conservative Democrat, locked up Byrd’s seat in 2010, with Carte Goodwin filling in for a few months as an appointee.
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