Capito announced Monday that she will run for Senate in 2014.
But Capito is popular, has cross-party appeal, a record that’s in tune with the state and was on the right side of the presidential election. Every county in West Virginia voted for Republican Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election. The Republicans have won every presidential election in West Virginia since 2000, but the Democrats remain the stronger party in this culturally conservative state, maintaining its hold on the governorship and the Legislature during this same period.
“I think it’s going to be a knock-down drag-out if it’s the two of them,” a West Virginia Republican said. “It’d be a bruising campaign.”
Indeed, Roll Call has learned that there are already conversations going on in GOP circles in the state about independent expenditure efforts to hit Rockefeller.
A potential line of attack would be on his recently evolved positions on coal — not always in line with the companies that operate in the coal-heavy state.
“It’s no secret that Sen. Rockefeller has a more liberal posture on coal,” Republican pollster Mark Blankenship said. “That’s not necessarily going to be a catch-all strategy for the Capito campaign, but in the southern coalfields,” he said, it could swing voters to her and “chew into that Democrat firewall.”
If Rockefeller decides to retire, Democrats appear to have a relatively limited bench of tested statewide elected officials. Two potential candidates: Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis, who both just won statewide office this year.
Capito, who is far from a conservative’s conservative, could also face primary challenges.
The pro-free-market Club for Growth sent out a statement Monday morning blasting Capito. Club President Chris Chocola noted what he called her “long record of support of bailouts, pork and bigger government.” The Senate Conservatives Fund political action committee associated with Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also sounded a critical note against Capito.
But West Virginia GOP insiders don’t expect the primary electorate to be favorable to a candidate other than Capito. And it doesn’t hurt that she’s staked out her position early. The only name floated by Republican insiders as a potential primary challenger was frequent candidate John Raese, who most recently lost to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III by 24 points. Raese also lost to Manchin in a 2010 special election.
But in an interview with Roll Call, Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., who just won his second term, didn’t rule out a Senate bid.
“I think all options ought to be out there,” he said. “It’s very early for someone to start a campaign at this point.”
And McKinley offered what could be construed as a veiled criticism of Capito.
“I’m a little surprised that that race has kicked off so early. I would think that it would be in everyone’s best interest to let the people absorb the impact of this past election,” he said.
Democrats, not surprisingly, also knocked Capito’s early entry.
“I think it signals she’s a little worried about other people getting into the race, so she moved up the time frame,” said a Senate Democratic operative familiar with West Virginia.
Former Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., candidate for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, holds his hand over his heart during the singing of the national anthem as he waits to take the stage for his town hall campaign rally with Sen. John McCain at the Pinkerton Academy in Derry, N.H., on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014.