West Virginia’s political complexion has gradually changed in recent years from bright blue to red as GOP presidential and congressional candidates have made sizable inroads with predominantly white, conservative Democrats weary of their party’s social and economic views.
Democratic registration remains 2-to-1 in the state, but George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney all prevailed in the Mountain State’s past three presidential elections. The GOP also beat out the Democrats for control of the state’s three House seats.
While much has happened since the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd and other legendary Democrats ruled the roost, Tuesday’s primary in West Virginia will set the table for an even more dramatic political restructuring in November. Republicans stand a good chance of winning all three House seats, taking control of a Senate seat long held by retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, and claiming a majority in the lower chamber of the state legislature.
Leading the charge for Republicans is seven-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of one-time GOP governor Arch Moore, who is expected to sail to the Senate nomination. Capito will face underdog Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) in the general election to succeed Rockefeller, the great grandson of oil billionaire John D. Rockefeller and a prominent national leader in health care and benefits for retired mine workers and their widows. Whoever wins that battle would become the state's first female senator.
Capito, 60, a mother of three, has been a GOP trailblazer in the West Virginia House of Delegates and in Congress – starting with her victory in 2000 to become the first GOP woman from the state to win election to the House. “My race for Congress in 2000 was so close… But I knew if I won, it was big, not because it was me but because I was a Republican,” Capito told the Tribune-Review during a visit to Wheeling recently.
“The state is leaning more Republican and there is an open Senate seat – so clearly this is a big opportunity for Republicans,” said Neil Berch, an associate professor of politics at West Virginia University, in an interview. “But Senate races are probably more candidate-centered than, say, House races, which largely follow national trends. The Democrats have a strong candidate as well. Natalie Tennant holds statewide office; she has been known in the state for a while.”
Berch added, “Frankly, you have two very strong campaigners. Given the national trends, I would certainly give Capito the edge, but there’s a long ways to go.”
National Republicans are counting on Capito in their bid to retake control of the Senate in November. Harry Reid and the Democrats currently hold a 55-to-45 majority, including two independents who caucus with the Democrats. The Republicans need a net pickup of six seats to claim control of the Senate for the first time in more than seven years.
Also on Tuesday, Nebraska Republicans go to the polls to choose a candidate to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Mike Johanns.
In forecasts by University of Virginia political scientist Larry J. Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” analysis, Republicans are on track to pick up between four and eight Senate seats in November. The seven most vulnerable Democratic held seats are in Alaska, Arkansas, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota and West Virginia.
“We consider Capito a heavy favorite to win Jay Rockefeller's Senate seat in November,” Sabato said in an interview. “It is remarkable how quickly the Mountain State has changed party allegiance. In 16 years, the state has gone from strongly Democratic to tilting Republican, especially presidentially but also in state and local contests. There are some exceptions, such as Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. To a great degree, this is the white working class moving from D to R.”
Another race with huge implications is the uphill reelection effort of veteran Democratic House member Nick J. Rahall, a champion of coal miners and mine safety measures who has been hammered for months by conservative groups. Rahall, a 19-term veteran from West Virginia’s purple 3rd Congressional District, has been running scared since late last year, due partly to voter hostility toward Obamacare.
Rahall’s constituents were angered by reports that millions of Americans – including 8,800 West Virginians – were losing their existing health care plans because they didn’t meet the Affordable Care Act’s standards. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group with deep pockets, began airing TV ads in Rahall’s district blasting him for supporting Obamacare.
Rahall has been tailoring his votes to be more in line with the House GOP majority. He faces token opposition in today’s Democratic primary from Richard Ojeda, a veteran who’s been unable to raise much for his campaign.
The real challenge will come in November from GOP state senator Evan Jenkins. If Jenkins topples Rahall, it likely would mean that Republicans would control all three of West Virginia’s House seats for the first time since 1922. Capito and Republican David B. McKinley currently hold the other two House seats.
If the GOP sweeps the three House seats and Capito wins, Sen. Joe Manchin III, a former governor, would be the lone Democrat in West Virginia’s congressional delegation.
“This is a pivotal moment for West Virginia,” Capito recently told Roll Call. “We’re on the precipice of big change.”
Political experts say two factors help explain West Virginia’s shift from Democratic to Republican over the past decade or so; voters’ conservative views on gun control, gay rights and moral issues, as well as bitter opposition to the Obama administration’s environmental policies on coal burning that are seen as a threat to the state’s economy.
“Moral issues are much more prominent these days, and things like fiscal responsibility are a bigger deal,” explained Frank Vaughan, an associate professor of politics at West Virginia State University. “I think part of what’s going on is an ideological shift, but I don’t think that explains everything,” he added. “Citizens are responding to the issues and identifying with the national Republican Party.”
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