The race for a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia just got more interesting.
The entrance of Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant complicates what Republicans had assumed would be an easy pickup. Though the race still favors Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, Tennant was the last remaining Democrat who could plausibly make the race competitive.
The former businesswoman and broadcast journalist provides a strong contrast to Capito, Democrats believe, as she can run as a Washington outsider up against a candidate they plan to paint as a symbol of federal government dysfunction.
Tennant has a short record from her time as secretary of State, which is both a burden and asset for her. Democrats familiar with her candidacy say she’ll likely tout her work cutting her office’s budget, as well as her efforts to provide online voting for members of the military overseas.
Her husband, state Sen. Erik Wells, may play a role in the campaign as well. The military veteran challenged Capito in 2000 and outperformed expectations, though Capito kept her seat.
But Republicans will fight hard to flip it, as their path to control of the Senate weaves squarely through the Shenandoah Valley. They need to pick up six seats to regain the majority, and are banking on taking three red states where Democrats are retiring. West Virginia is one of those.
But the party hasn't sent a senator to Congress from West Virginia since 1956. And though Capito was a top recruit for Republicans, she’s not guaranteed to walk to the nomination.
On the first day of her candidacy, Capito received criticism from two conservative groups known for mounting primary challenges against establishment-backed Republicans: Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
She's been criticized by conservatives for her votes on the auto bailout and debt ceiling increases, among other issues, and Capito has a lifetime score of just 50 percent from the Club for Growth.
She already has a handful of primary challengers, and while one, former state Del. Pat McGeehan, has been endorsed by a national conservative group, none have yet picked up much steam in the primary.
Still, if Capito emerges from the primary relatively unscathed — and she’s banking the money, $2.35 million cash on hand at the end of the last quarter, to do so — she’ll be the favorite to win in the general.
Republicans privately dismiss the conservative criticism and note that it simply means Capito will be able to appeal to moderates in the state, which she’ll need to win in the general.
Republicans have given an early indication that they plan to make the race a referendum on President Obama as much as possible. He lost the state by about 27 points in 2012 and the state’s congressional delegation is majority Republican.
And while Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) was able to win reelection in 2012 by drawing a stark contrast between himself and the president — an infamous ad features him shooting a copy of the disliked-in-West Virginia cap-and-trade bill through with a shotgun — Tennant will have a tougher time running on that independent message.
She’s been a delegate to the Democratic National Convention twice before, and campaigned for Obama in 2008 in West Virginia. She’s also made comments Republicans have suggested were a defense of President Obama’s policies on coal, which remain controversial in West Virginia, where coal production is a significant part of the economy.
Brook Hougesen, spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, immediately drew comparisons between Tennant and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in a statement on her entrance into the race.
“Natalie Tennant is a cookie-cutter liberal more in the mold of Harry Reid (D-Nev.) than Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) on issues like coal, energy, the EPA, ObamaCare, abortion and protecting the 2nd Amendment," she said.
She also suggested that Tennant is strategically useful for Republicans, because she could draw resources and energy from other candidates.
“Strategically, Tennant is great for Republicans in that she's enough of a mirage to keep National Democrats and donors walking through the desert without offering the ability to ever drink," Hougesen said.
And she was trounced in the Democratic primary for West Virginia’s 2011 gubernatorial race, taking only 17 percent of the vote. The candidate who finished second, state House Speaker Rick Thompson, decided not to run in the Senate race.
However, she’ll likely receive significant support from outside Democratic groups, including EMILY’s List, who endorsed her in that gubernatorial race.
And West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio told The Hill enthusiasm for Tennant to run was high.
“I’ve been involved for some time in the political arena, and I’ve never seen the recruitment effort from the voters in West Virginia asking so strongly for an individual to enter this race,” he said.