In West Virginia, Democrats have in Natalie Tennant the ideal candidate for the Senate. She’s already won two statewide races. She was the first woman to serve as the West Virginia University Mountaineer mascot, a big deal in a state where nearly everyone is a Mountaineer fan. She’s a former television news anchor who met her husband — a military veteran — when they co-anchored “Good Morning West Virginia.”
But when national Democrats talk strategy about how they will retain control of the Senate — which races they have to win, which ones they can lose, which ones are worth the gamble — West Virginia hardly ever comes up.
Tennant may be the popular two-term West Virginia secretary of state, but West Virginia’s anti-Democratic mood may be among the most intense of any state in the country. Mitt Romney won the state by 27 percentage points over President Obama, who could not win a single West Virginia county in 2012.
And the once solidly blue state probably holds the record for moving from blue to red over the shortest period of time.
Obama is incredibly unpopular in the state due in large part to his administration’s ongoing aversion to championing coal, an industry central to the state’s identity, both economically and culturally.
The daunting odds for Tennant and the Democrats are made more formidable by the fact that Republicans, too, have their perfect candidate in the race to replace retiring Democratic Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV.
Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is a seven-term lawmaker and daughter of a former governor who has millions of dollars in her campaign account and a moderate Republican voting record. All of that gives her a clear lead in early polls and fundraising.
The one bright spot for Democrats is that they continue to hold a voter registration advantage over the GOP.
Tennant’s candidacy will also test the proposition that Democrats can make a convincing case against Republicans in Congress for the ways in which they managed the House over the past 3 1 / 2 years. If Capito prevails, she will become the first GOP senator from West Virginia since 1956 and give Republicans one of the six seats they need to take control of the Senate.
Whoever wins the general election will make history: West Virginia has never elected a female senator. It did elect a female House member before Capito: the late Democrat Elizabeth Kee, who was a player in helping John F. Kennedy win the 1960 Democratic presidential primary in the state.
Capito is one of at least six House Republicans who are nominees or likely nominees in Senate races. A seventh may soon win Georgia’s GOP primary. Adopting a strategy that worked for Democrats running against House Republicans seeking Senate seats in 2012, Tennant will make Capito’s voting record in the historically unpopular Congress a central argument against her.
“I’m going to win because West Virginians want someone who represents them,” Tennant said in an interview Wednesday. “Someone who understands them and not someone who’s represented Washington and Wall Street for way too long.”
Capito hopes her family’s deep roots and her distance from the Republican Party’s tea party wing can win over the conservative Democrats who populate the state’s Appalachian region. She also hopes to tie Tennant to Obama.
“West Virginia is under attack” by the Obama administration, Capito said in an interview Wednesday, adding later: “My opponent has been a strong supporter of the president in the past. That signals the pathway she would take as a senator.”
Both candidates cite women currently serving in the Senate as their models.
Capito has said that if elected, she would like to emulate Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, a Republican who has clashed with the tea party and is a dealmaker on Capitol Hill.
Tennant has campaigned in West Virginia alongside Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), who held statewide office before a come-from-behind victory in 2012 against a House Republican seeking higher office in another energy-rich rural state.
Obama’s sagging poll numbers across West Virginia suggest that the strategy of tying Tennant to the president may be a viable one for the GOP.
But Tennant disputed suggestions that her Democratic Party affiliation will cost her the race.
“I’m a West Virginia Democrat,” she said — a distinction that she said means being a vocal critic of Obama’s decision to impose tighter pollution controls on coal- and gas-fired utilities and his decision to sign a flood insurance bill that led to higher premiums for state residents in flood zones.
In a year in which Democrats have worried openly about a potential lack of enthusiasm, Tennant said that more Democrats showed up to nominate her on primary day on Tuesday than Republicans did to vote for Capito. And eight of the state’s 11 elected statewide or congressional positions are held by Democrats.
Obama won just 35 percent of the vote in 2012. But that same year, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) won 60 percent in his election, and Tennant, who was running for reelection as secretary of state, topped 60 percent.
“This is not a red state. We are a Democrat state,” she said.
Capito first ran for the House in 2000 after her predecessor, Democrat Bob Wise, decided to run for governor. Since winning, she has rarely had difficult reelection tests. In 2006, Democrat Mike Callaghan, a former federal prosecutor, attempted to link her to the policies of George W. Bush, but he struggled and did not ride that year’s Democratic wave. In 2012, she won nearly 70 percent of the vote.
Inside the House GOP cloakroom, Capito is generally known as an even-tempered Republican who rarely causes trouble for House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). She used to serve on the Rules Committee, which controls the flow of legislation on the House floor, but now sits on the Financial Services Committee and often appears on CNBC discussing financial policy.
Capito’s father, Arch A. Moore Jr., 91, has long been a controversial figure in state politics. A World War II veteran and lawyer, he became a popular Republican governor who served three terms — 1969 to 1977 and again from 1985 to 1989. But he later pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, and in 1990 was sentenced to more than five years in prison.
Moore, who served three years of the sentence, has loomed over Capito’s career from the start, and he was still dealing with legal issues when Capito launched her first race for the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1996.
Capito told C-SPAN in 2005 that she decided early on to not shy away from her father’s legacy.
“I decided to go ahead and move my name up to the three,” she told host Brian Lamb, in reference to her use of her family’s name. “Some people would argue that it might hurt me, and it’s a mouthful. But I carry it.”