Capito takes friendly fire on day one

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s (R-W.Va.) candidacy for a West Virginia Senate seat is already signaling that Republicans could face the same intra-party split that plagued them in primaries over the past two cycles.

On day one of her candidacy, Capito received criticism from two conservative groups known for mounting primary challenges against establishment-backed Republicans: the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, a group founded by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). 

Chris Chocola, president of the Club, slammed her as an “establishment candidate,” and Senate Conservatives Fund executive director Matt Hoskins said the group wouldn’t endorse her.

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“If the grass roots in West Virginia recruit a strong, viable challenger, SCF will seriously consider supporting them,” Hoskins said.

The early criticism indicates Capito, who is in favor of abortion rights and supported the auto bailout, could face a primary challenge from the right, though few prospects exist. 

Tea Party-backed John Raese, who ran his fifth unsuccessful race in 2012 and was defeated by Sen. Joe Manchin (D), is one possibility.

In 2010 and 2012, the Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund often backed different primary candidates than did the party leaders. And some of those conservative-backed candidates went on to lose the general election in states the Republicans could have won, such as Indiana and Missouri (this year) and in Delaware (in 2010).

After two failed cycles of trying to win control of the upper chamber, pressure is on Republicans leaders to take back the Senate in 2014.

A win by Capito, who is considered a strong contender for the seat, would help GOP chances. The six-term lawmaker turned down a run for Senate twice before, but a source familiar with her thinking said she believes the time is right, with West Virginia growing redder. The state has not elected a GOP senator, however, since the 1950s.

Just over 50 percent of the state is registered Democratic, and only 29 percent is Republican. But that’s down from 54 percent Democratic in 2008 and 55 percent Democratic in 2006. Mitt Romney won West Virginia this year with more than 60 percent of the vote. 

Democrats, too, could see a primary race. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who will be 77 on Election Day, could retire, jeopardizing what some Democrats say is their best chance at retaining the seat. He’s given no indication of his plans yet, saying only in an email that “everyone I talk to in West Virginia is tired of the non-stop campaigning.”

“West Virginians just want us to do our jobs, and for me that means focusing full-time on the serious issues at hand. Politics can wait,” he said.

Many vulnerable senators facing reelection in 2014 have more than $1 million in their campaign bank accounts. Rockefeller has less than $705,000, while Capito has more than $1.4 million, according to CQ Moneyline.

With the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee lacking a chairman, it’s unclear who among his colleagues is making a pitch for him to stay on for another term.

But multiple West Virginia Democratic sources said they had no reason to believe the senator would retire. 

George Carenbauer, a former West Virginia Democratic Party chairman and Rockefeller’s legal counsel when he was governor, said he’s familiar with the senator’s thinking and has “no reason to think he’s not going to run.”

“He’s never given any indication except that he’s going to run, and my assumption is that he will run,” he said.

Carenbauer said that while he’s been in touch with Rockefeller’s staff, he’s seen no need to pick up the phone and lobby him personally to stay in the race, and that there was no apparent urgency in West Virginia Democratic circles concerning his potential retirement.

But he’ll still face a tough challenge from Capito — a poll conducted for the Charleston Daily Mail in August gave her a 4-percentage-point lead over Rockefeller, taking 48 percent support overall and 28 percent of Democrats.

And a 2011 poll from Public Policy Polling showed just 47 percent of likely voters approving of his performance. 

There’s also a bit of a family rivalry between the two. Capito’s father, Arch Moore, defeated Rockefeller for governor in 1972, but Rockefeller helped defeat his bid for Senate in 1978 and ultimately defeated the elder Moore in a gubernatorial rematch in 1980.

Rockefeller might be vulnerable in the increasingly red West Virginia, as he’s made little effort to moderate his positions, endorsing President Obama in the primary in 2008 and taking on Republicans who strove to weaken the Environmental Protection Agency. 

He was one of the few Democrats in coal states to vote against GOP efforts to block Obama regulations on emissions from coal-fired power plants, a move that will likely resonate with voters in West Virginia, where coal mining represents a large portion of the economy. 

In her remarks to reporters announcing her bid, Capito already indicated the issue will figure in her attacks.

“Over the next two years, I have no higher priority than to continue standing up for the people of the 2nd district of our state as we tackle the current financial crisis and continue to stand up to the [Environmental Protection Agency’s] dangerous and unconstitutional crusade to dictate our nation’s energy policy to the detriment of West Virginia.”

If Rockefeller does choose to retire, however, possible Democratic candidates include Carte Goodwin, who filled Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) seat after his death, former Gov. Gaston Caperton, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

Capito’s decision to run also opens up early speculation regarding her House seat, in West Virginia’s 2nd district. 

Democrats see this as an opportunity in 2014, and already, Goodwin and Anne Barth, who ran for the seat in 2008, have been proposed as potential contenders. On the Republican side, former Secretary of State Betty Ireland, Attorney General-elect Patrick Morrissey and state legislator Eric Nelson are possibilities.

--This story has been corrected to reflect Capito's voting record.