Byrd is among the Republicans’ top targets. While Democrats contend that he has the legislative girth to bring home more federal funds, Republicans say that, at 87, the senator’s time has passed.
Capito, for her part, has been spending more time outside her 2nd District.
On Saturday, the congresswoman was the keynote speaker at a luncheon for the Cabell County Republican Women, in the 3rd District. Next month she will attend the Benedum Festival, in the 1st District.
Capito also has declined to endorse either of the two Republicans who have announced they are running for the Senate — Hiram Lewis, who was nearly elected state attorney general last year, and Zane Lawhorn, an optometrist.
Meanwhile, the congresswoman has sought to avoid talking too much about the race. Her press secretary, R.C. Hammond, indicated yesterday that she is not ready to discuss the Senate seat.
“People have asked her to come to events outside the district, and she’s tried to accommodate them as best as possible,” Hammond said. “I think it’s easier to do in a non-election year.”
Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), who attended an event for Capito earlier this year in her district, said the drumbeat for Capito to enter the Senate race has been growing.
“I know she’s being heavily lobbied to run by the folks in the Senate,” Nunes said. The congressman added: “There’s no doubt that she’s a great candidate.”
Lewis, speaking from his campaign headquarters in Morgantown, W.Va., said that the NRSC had courted Capito but that he didn’t expect her to run.
“She’s gotten on the [House] Rules Committee,” he said. “She’s on the fast track to leadership in the House. They’ve invested a lot of money with her. … If she gets out of that seat, we’ll possibly lose that congressional seat.”
Nick Casey, West Virginia Democratic Party chairman, agreed, indicating that Democrats would wage an aggressive campaign to take back Capito’s seat. Capito won her last race with 58 percent of the vote, compared to 68 percent for Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), in the 1st, and 65 percent for Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), in the 3rd.
Democrats have attacked Capito for her inexperience, arguing that a third-term congresswoman is in no position to help West Virginia as much as an eighth-term senator like Byrd. “She can’t beat him,” Casey said simply.
Lewis added that Capito is simply trying to keep her name in the news for now to raise more money and, possibly, to run statewide at a later date.
Fueling much of the talk of a Capito candidacy is increasing chatter — among GOP activists, on West Virginia talk-radio shows and in Washington — about Byrd’s days in the Ku Klux Klan, prompted, in part, by the release Monday of the senator’s autobiography, Robert C. Byrd: Child of the Appalachian Coalfields.
The book has generated considerable interest among West Virginians. A poll conducted by the Charleston Daily Mail found that, as of yesterday afternoon, more than one-quarter of its readers plan to read the book.
Joe Long, chairman of the Republican Party in Raleigh County, where Byrd hails from, said he had seen a flurry of e-mails about the senator’s involvement in the Klan, now thought to be more extensive than previously believed.
“Senator Byrd has said all along that he was part of the Klan early in his life, and he has said all along how sorry he is that he ever joined such a terrible organization,” Byrd’s spokesman, Tom Gavin, said. “It is a 60-year-old story, and it certainly does not reflect the person that he is today.”
Still, Byrd remains a fixture of West Virginia politics.
Bill Raney of the West Virginia Coal Association said the senator had consistently sided with coal miners, the industry, perhaps, for which West Virginia is best known. Raney added that there are 17,000 coal miners and 24,000-25,000 “specialty contractors” — electricians, engineers, coal-lab analysts and others who depend on mining — in the state.
The most pressing concern of the coal association, Raney said, is the amendment to the energy bill proposed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) limiting fossil-fuel emissions.
Referring to the senator, Raney said: “As I recall, he opposed a similar amendment a couple years ago. He’s always been supportive of the industry and the people who work in it.”
Byrd has been an outspoken critic of the Bush administration on a range of issues, most recently on the White House’s effort to convince the Senate to pursue the so-called “nuclear option” on judicial nominations.