Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the lone Republican in West Virginia’s congressional delegation, is mobilizing for a possible challenge next year to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) — getting a head start on fundraising and making top-level personnel changes.
“Coal was expected,” he said, referring to the West Virginia Coal Association, “but auto dealers and manufacturers were somewhat of a surprise.”
The Republican added that the event, at a downtown convention center, was “not a cheap deal” and that it was geared toward “more people who could raise money than who could just write checks.”
Ruth Lemmon, executive vice president of the automobile and truck dealers association, who attended the event, said Capito indicated that she would run for reelection to the House in 2006.
But in a sign that the association might back a Capito Senate bid, Lemmon said: “We think that having her in Washington in whatever capacity she ever chooses would certainly benefit West Virginia.”
Tom Gavin, a spokesman for Byrd, declined to comment on Capito except to say that “she has been in office for not even two and a half terms.”
Indications are that the 87-year-old senator, in his eighth term, has not decided whether to run again.
“He has every intention to seek reelection, but he has not made a formal announcement,” Gavin said. He added that Byrd would make an announcement by early next year, the filing deadline in West Virginia.
State Republicans said Capito would hold a big fundraiser in April, adding that the congresswoman, who raised less than $20,000 in the first quarter of 2003, appeared to be raising money more aggressively than in the last election cycle. A House aide confirmed that Capito is moving early in the cycle to fill up her campaign coffers.
Also, the congresswoman recently replaced her longtime chief of staff, Mark Johnson, with Martin Baker, who ran Capito’s 2002 congressional campaign and worked at the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The move is similar to that of Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). After the 2004 elections, Allen tapped political consultant Dick Wadhams to be his chief of staff.
Wadhams ran John Thune’s successful 2004 Senate campaign against then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Allen faces Virginia voters in 2006 and is said to be mulling a 2008 presidential run.
On top of this, the congresswoman is now bringing in support from outside the state. On Friday, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) attended a Lincoln Day dinner on Capito’s behalf.
R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for the congresswoman, said Capito is focused on her job in the House. But, he added, as far as the future is concerned, “she’s keeping her options open.”
While Republicans in West Virginia and in Washington are encouraging Capito, in her third term, to challenge Byrd, some believe Capito is too junior to mount a viable statewide campaign.
Diane Cockerham, president of the West Virginia Federation of Republican Women, said Byrd would prove tough to beat because he’s brought so much government money to the state — from FBI facilities to NASA grants to Treasury Department jobs.
Still, Republicans are hopeful.
Not only did President Bush carry West Virginia for the second time in 2004 but two West Virginia Republicans last year also beat veteran Democrats: Betty Ireland defeated former Rep. Kenneth Hechler (D), 90, for secretary of state and Republican Brent Benjamin trounced Democratic incumbent Warren McGraw to become a state Supreme Court justice.
Republicans also are encouraged by Byrd’s record, they say, of making discordant remarks. The most recent example they point to is Byrd’s comment last week drawing an implicit parallel between the Senate GOP leadership and Nazis.
Several Republicans speculated that the party will run a “Senator Bunning-style” campaign against Byrd, a reference to Republican Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky, who made some impolitic remarks in the closing weeks of his successful bid last year for reelection.
The eventual GOP nominee may further be helped by the relatively late start of Byrd’s reelection campaign. Some incumbents up for reelection in 2006 have begun running in earnest, including Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.)
Gavin, Byrd’s spokesman, said the senator has yet to hold any campaign events this election cycle but will host a fundraiser April 5, featuring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), at the Phoenix Park Hotel.
Gavin said Byrd has hired Democratic, Washington-based fundraiser Paul DeNino. And he promised that Byrd, if he runs, would campaign on his nearly 50-year record in the Senate.
“The National Republican Senatorial Committee [NRSC], they’ll try and twist and turn Senator Byrd’s long record on its head and convince West Virginia voters that red is blue and blue is red,” Gavin said.
NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said that West Virginia “has moved out from under Senator Byrd” and that the senator is “way out of touch with the mainstream.”
Phil Singer, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesman, said of Capito: “She’s wasting her time and money if she is thinking about taking on Senator Byrd.”