GOP strategy to unseat Manchin depends on Rep. Capito's plans

There are two factors complicating Republicans’ plans to unseat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in 2012: the state’s gubernatorial race and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.).

Party officials acknowledge Capito has the best chance to beat Manchin, but the five-term lawmaker is believed to favor a bid for the state’s top job.

And until she announces her plans, Republicans are in a holding pattern.

“I think what you’re going to see going into 2012 is a wait-and-see game in terms of where does Shelley Moore Capito decide to go,” said Mike Stuart, chairman of the West Virginia Republican Party. “And then there'll be a whole host of candidates that decide to jump in at different places based on her decision.”

Mark Blankenship, a West-Virginia based pollster, said many Republicans are reluctant to face Capito in a contested primary.

“She’s certainly the most popular Republican in the state,” Blankenship said, noting Capito was viewed favorably by 77 percent of respondents in a recent survey his firm conducted. The poll of 401 registered West Virginia voters was conducted Nov. 10-11 and had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.

“She would most likely defeat any Republican challenger in any primary, and I think most Republicans know that," he said.

Despite Manchin’s popularity as governor — he had an 80 percent approval rating in Blankenship’s survey — many observers believe he will be one of the more vulnerable Senate Democrats up for reelection next cycle.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee is already zeroing in on him, noting in recent press releases that he supports “anti-coal” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.). The committee’s first press release on the 2012 election was targeted at Manchin.

Capito has been publicly ambivalent about which office she’d prefer.

"I'm not ruling it out by any stretch," she said recently when asked if she’d challenge Manchin in two years. "But I have given no thought to it."

Stuart dismissed the suggestion his party’s bench isn’t deep enough to compete in both a Senate race and a gubernatorial campaign.

“I think we’re going to have fertile ground in both of those races,” he said. “What we’ve seen from Sen. Manchin is a very comfortable, moderate Democrat in Washington, which is outside the mainstream of ordinary voters in West Virginia.”

Manchin left the governor’s office early in order to run for the Senate. He filled the remainder of the late Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) term by winning the 2010 election. In 2012 he’ll be running for his first full term.

Officials expect Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who as state Senate president ascended to the top job after Manchin’s election to the Senate, to hold the position until 2012. That’s when the state will hold a double primary and a double gubernatorial vote on Election Day — one vote for the term running between November and January and the other for the full four-year term.

Tomblin told The Hill he believes Democrats will face a more favorable political environment in 2012.

At the state level, West Virginia “is basically overwhelming Democrat,” he said. “All the constitutional officers with the exception of one Supreme Court justice are Democrats.”

“Obviously, the Democrats are going to have to have more conservative candidates, more fiscally responsible candidates,” Tomblin added. “But I think a whole lot of backlash this last election was over the national policy, as opposed to the state policy.”

Still, Tomblin said Manchin would be able to distance himself from the Democrats’ national agenda in the Senate.

“I think he will bring a very responsible approach to managing the country’s finances,” he said. “He marches to the beat of his own drum.”

—Shane D'Aprile contributed to this story.