In the days immediately following the November election, GOP WV Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced her plans to run for Senate in 2014. Her long-anticipated campaign for statewide office was viewed as a serious threat to long-time Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s reelection. Capito’s early announcement of her campaign was intended to pressure Rockefeller into retirement. On Friday, the 75 year old Rockefeller announced that he would retire at the end of his term. The move sets up a likely GOP primary battle.
Capito was first elected to the House in 2000, becoming the first Republican woman to represent West Virginia in Congress. Until the 2010 election, she was the sole Republican in the state’s delegation. She is the scion of a powerful political dynasty in the state, where he father served 3 terms as Governor. Her father and Rockefeller battled politically for decades, running against each other for various offices 3-4 times. Because of this, in large part, she had a fairly clear path for the nomination to take on the veteran Senator.
With Rockefeller’s retirement, however, it is unlikely she’ll have an uncontested path to the now-open Senate seat. Open Senate seats are rare and Capito has some positions that are ill-suited to the conservative state. While most voters in the state still identify with the Democrat party, they are very conservative and often at odds with the national party. Obama lost every county in the state and won just 35% of the vote.
Capito’s chief vulnerability is that she is actively pro-choice, belonging to a few pro-choice caucuses in the House. All other members of the state’s delegation, including the Democrats, are pro-life. It is almost impossible to imagine pro-life groups sitting out a GOP primary for a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Beyond abortion, Capito has built the kind of moderate GOP voting record one would expect from a suburban Congressman. Her lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union is just 70%. Her rating from Heritage Action is just 48%, well below the average House GOP member rating of 66%. The Senate Conservative Fund, founded by Sen. Jim DeMint, has already said they couldn’t support Capito.
It seems highly certain there will be a GOP primary to contest the open seat. If multiple candidates contest the seat, Capito should have the edge despite her moderate positions. Multiple challengers would split the hard-conservative vote in the primary, allowing Capito to edge through on her name ID and fundraising advantage. A single conservative, challenger, however could make for a very competitive primary.
A number of national GOP organizations are convinced that candidates who were too conservative cost them critical senate seats in the last two cycles. They, led by Karl Rove’s Crossroads, have vowed to be more involved in GOP primaries. West Virginia, then, is likely to be the setting for a fight between these groups and grass roots conservatives. It will be a fight for the future of the GOP.