The West Virginia Senate race was going to be interesting, no matter what. When Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a well-known figure in state Republican circles, announced in November that she would challenge incumbent Democrat Jay Rockefeller — who won his last race handily and has held the seat since 1985 — next year’s contest looked set to be an Appalachian Tournament of Champions.
But when Rockefeller announced on January 11 that he would retire instead of running for reelection, he set the stage for what could become a dramatic primary standoff between an establishment Republican and a more conservative challenger.
Capito has represented West Virginia’s second congressional district since 2001. Her father, Arch A. Moore Jr., was governor of the state and a rival of Rockefeller’s. She has strong name recognition and support throughout West Virginia, and insiders had long predicted she’d seek higher office.
Many on the right have taken issue with her voting record. She supported the auto bailouts, the bailouts of Fannie and Freddie, and last summer’s debt-ceiling increase. When she announced that she would run for Rockefeller’s seat, many conservatives immediately broadcast their dissatisfaction with her. The Huffington Post pointed out that it took the Club for Growth just an hour to label her as part of the “establishment” and announce that it could not support her candidacy.
With Rockefeller’s withdrawal, the race should look more appealing to potential primary challengers, because they won’t face a wealthy and relatively popular incumbent in the general election. Still, Hoppy Kercheval, a longtime West Virginia radio broadcaster and political observer, tells National Review Online that Capito’s status as the state’s top Republican — not to mention her campaign’s head start — could intimidate potential challengers. “Because of Capito’s popularity, it’s going to be hard for the Club for Growth or for any candidate on his own to jump into that,” he says. “That would be a tough row to hoe.”
Indeed, Conrad Lucas, the state GOP chairman, recently told West Virginia’s Journal News that though the state party will probably not endorse Capito during the primary, he and other Republican grandees are enthusiastic Capito supporters. “Capito is an incredible candidate for the Senate seat and has proven to be a strong leader for our state,” he told the paper. She’s a “natural choice,” he added, for the nomination.
That said, Kercheval mentioned one potential primary contender: David McKinley, the Republican congressman for the state’s first congressional district.
McKinley’s entry would be a surprise, Kercheval says, but the 65-year-old congressman has been “making noise” that suggests he may give Capito a run for her money. “If she is not going to be that fiscal hawk that is going to make sure that we get our spending under control, then we’ll find another candidate,” McKinley told West Virginia’s MetroNews, the day before Rockefeller announced his resignation.
A challenger to Capito could garner support from well-funded conservative groups. In a conversation with NRO, Barney Keller of the Club for Growth was circumspect about the contest, but he reiterated the group’s opposition to Capito and its interest in supporting a more fiscally conservative candidate. “If a credible and viable candidate stepped forward who believed in limited government and free enterprise, we would take a very close look at the race,” Keller says.
Matt Hoskins, the executive director of the Senate Conservatives Fund, was more blunt. His group helped elect Rand Paul and Marco Rubio to the Senate, and it is interested in putting another deficit hawk in the Senate. He’s not impressed with Capito.
“Capito’s decision to run was not an act of courage,” Hoskins says. “She’s had many opportunities to run before and never did. This time is different because she knew, like everybody else, that Rockefeller was going to retire. She announced early because she wanted to clear the field. And we’re hoping principled folks in West Virginia will answer the call and run for this critical Senate seat.”
Hoskins adds that sending a moderate Republican to Washington wouldn’t be a fair representation of the state’s conservative sensibility. While Democrats have held the seat for the last 60 years, the state has grown increasingly red — 62 percent of the vote went to Mitt Romney last year — and the seat looks to be Republicans’ to lose.
No Democrats have yet stepped forward to challenge Capito (probably out of respect for Senator Rockefeller), though Kercheval has theorized about a few, including former governor Gaston Capterton and state-supreme-court justice Robin Davis. Both have deep pockets, inside connections, and statewide campaign experience.
Former senator Carte Goodwin is another Democrat to watch. Goodwin was appointed to his seat for a brief period in 2010 following the death of Senator Robert Byrd. Goodwin counts Democrat Joe Manchin, a former governor who is now a senator, as a close ally.
For now, however, next year’s GOP primary is the race to watch.
— Besty Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.