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Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Paul Ryan set to stump in West Virginia

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The U.S. Senate race in West Virginia is hardly a marquee match-up this cycle because it’s not exactly competitive — a Republican will very likely end up winning, flipping a Democratic seat.

But, with two of the biggest figures in politics — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R. Wis.) — set to appear Monday afternoon, the under the radar contest will get another look.

What’s unique about this race is that it features two female candidates, Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Republican Shelley Moore Capito. And West Virginia will make state history by sending a woman to the Senate for the first time. (Notably, “women’s issues” have taken a bit of a back seat in this race, perhaps suggesting a neutralizing effect of having two women run against each other).

But back to Warren and Ryan.  At this very early stage in midterm campaigning, Warren has become the go-to Democrat, stumping for candidates in red states and raising gobs of cash. She will hit the stump as Tennant is set to roll out her education platform and is expected to tout her move to lower student interest rates for millions of borrowers.

But the Capito campaign clearly wants to focus on something else: coal.

Ryan, the 2012 Republican vice-presidential nominee and reknowned budget wonk, will likely focus on energy policy (coal!) and what Republicans like to call the “Obama economy” — the current unemployment rate in West Virginia is 6 percent, slightly below the national average of 6.1 percent.

For its part, the Tennant campaign has ripped a page from the well-worn Democratic playbook in casting Ryan as the BFF of millionaires.

So what will we be watching for from these dueling campaign appearances?

Warren, the Massachusetts liberal who will headline the Netroots Conference in Detroit later this week highlighting her role as the foremost progressive, faces the biggest test.  The question is whether her brand of liberalism translates to a mostly white, blue-collar setting.  For Democrats to continue to grow as a party in red states, they have to make inroads in the South and among the kind of voters that Bill Clinton did so well with.

Ryan faces a similar test that reflects a larger struggle for his party — how can mainstream Republicans tap into the populism that is coursing through the country and is energizing a significant wing of the GOP?  While the dynamics of this race are likely set, Monday’s campaigning by Warren and Ryan is a preview of the 2016 conversation and very much worth paying attention to.

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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