Secretary of State Natalie Tennant’s entrance into the West Virginia Senate race was met with delight by national Democrats while Republicans stayed mum. Since early this year Republicans have coalesced around their nominee, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (WV-2). Senator Jay Rockefeller soon after announced his retirement and until last week Democrats scrambled to find a nominee capable of challenging Capito. In Tennant they believe they have such a nominee.
Both Tennant and Moore have their issues as well as strengthen. The most obvious strength for Tennant is that she has been able to hold a largely non-partisan office and ingratiate herself to state voters (at least those who know her). Tennant has also not been in DC which may allow her to run as the anti-Washington candidate. On the other hand Tennant has obvious liabilities. She is running in a state that voted for a subpar GOP Presidential candidate by 27 points over Obama. Also, the policies her party’s President are pursuing are anathema to her state’s economic and ideological interests, particularly relating to environmental and energy policies.
Tennant is not the only Democratic nominee that will have to confront her party’s hostile stance to traditional sources of energy. In Kentucky, SofS Alison Grimes is running against Mitch McConnell. One of her fundamental issues will be distancing herself from the President’s stance on energy. Eastern Kentucky is heavy on coal production.
Moore, the daughter of former West Virginia Congressman and Governor Arch Moore, has a strong brand in the state built upon her father’s reputation. In a way her brand is predicated on taking votes that annoy national conservative groups but please West Virginian interests. For example, she voted for both the Auto Bailouts and TARP which has ensured that the Club for Growth and Americans for Prosperity will not support her candidacy and will likely oppose it. But so far Capito has no major primary challenger. With a strong statewide brand that has also helped insulate her from criticisms against DC Republicans she is in prime position to win the seat for Republicans.
Moore does have weaknesses though. Her weakness with national conservative groups could prove to not be a positive if these groups find a strong nominee to primary her. If they do it also would mean she might have to badly deplete her $2.35 million warchest. Secondly, Capito is largely a known commodity only in her central West Virginian district. Her money might ensure she can create a positive impression of herself to voters just becoming familiar with her but it also means she needs to spend time and money to court voters she might not have had to if she was a statewide politician.
Despite the weaknesses of both candidates the national parties are bullish on their nominees. Democrats contend Capito’s tenure in DC will be a stark contrast to Tennant’s problem solving ways in West Virginia. They cite her work to slash the state budget and work across party lines to forge compromises. Republicans however cite Tennant’s partisan label will be to much to overcome in the age of Obama.
With Tennant’s entrance into the race a total of five former or current Secretary of State’s are running for Senate seats, Some have better chances than others. But in a time of highly ideological polarization at the federal level it is much easier to run for a different kind of statewide office, such as Secretary of State. In those races voters have traditionally used a different set of standards to evaluate potential candidates. Some past examples of this would be Washington State having a GOP Secretary of State and all other statewide officeholders be Democrats. A current example would be Colorado having a GOP Secretary of State and all other statewide officeholders being Democrats.
But federal races are different. Voters evaluate candidates largely on ideological grounds and not on the same criteria as statewide races. If this is the case than Tennant will have to run far to the right of the President and perhaps even Capito. Capito’s positioning of herself as a centrist means she could be vulnerable to this. That said, West Virginia voters are unorthodox conservatives and Republicans that may favor Capito’s centrism over Tennant’s conservative Democratic tendencies.
Capito starts the race with a massive money advantage. Pro-choice groups such as Emily’s List have vowed to support Tennant but West Virginia is widely pro-life. Tennant may welcome their money but not their visible support. Centrist Republican groups such as Mainstreet Republicans PAC have vowed to help Capito if the race looks competitive.
The first poll on the race, released in late August before Tennant declared show Capito leading 45%-40% with 15% undecided. However, as a Republican strategist advised, the poll was taken before the race had really begun. Capito has time and money on her side to define Tennant before she has the resources to respond in kind.
All these factors combined could make West Virginia an interesting race. On the other hand, Capito could open up a wide lead or Tennant could surprise and overcome the many hurdles to her candidacy. We will know one way or the other in 13 months.