Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s close ties to President Barack Obama could end his Senate career — should the West Virginia Democrat choose to run for re-election in 2014.
Rockefeller hasn’t had a close race in 30 years. But his strong support for Obama’s agenda in a state where the president remains deeply unpopular, combined with Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s decision to run for Senate, could prove enough to undermine the political career of a Democratic icon who has endured even as West Virginia has grown more and more conservative.
“There’s been no doubt on his absolute support of Barack Obama,” West Virginia GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said, explaining why this race would be different from previous Republican Senate bids.
Rockefeller won his first Senate contest in 1984 with 52 percent of the vote and has won every race since with at least 63 percent. And with a stranglehold on the governor’s mansion and the Legislature, the West Virginia Democratic Party remains more powerful than its Republican counterpart.
But the Mountain State hasn’t voted Democrat for president since 1996, and unlike popular Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, a recent former governor who was first sent to Capitol Hill in 2010, Rockefeller has a long and politically troublesome Washington voting record that Republicans can use against him. He has been a strong supporter of the health care overhaul, to name one major component of Obama’s agenda derided by West Virginians.
Rockefeller, although he has served his state in elective office since the 1960s, first in the Legislature, then as secretary of state and then as governor, also lacks the cultural affinity that Manchin shares with current West Virginia voters. Even on coal, an issue on which Rockefeller was historically at odds with his party in deference to Mountain State politics, the senator has taken a more liberal turn, leading to speculation that he was telegraphing his intention not to seek re-election in 2014.
“Coal has played an important part in our past and can play an important role in our future, but it will only happen if we face reality,” he said on the Senate floor in June.
Rockefeller has declined to comment on his political plans, and few in his circle or among state Democrats were willing to address the retirement question for this story — even off the record. Rockefeller does not currently have a campaign website. But regardless of whether they want to discuss it, Capito forced the issue when she announced her Senate ambitions a couple of weeks after the 2010 elections.
Capito, whose father is a popular former governor, has been a perennial almost-candidate for Senate and has backed off of running a handful of times. But she was always the candidate Republicans were hoping would run, and despite some initial conservative backlash, they are growing more confident that she will avoid a primary challenge.
West Virginia Republicans say her name identification will help her bid, but they caution that she has to run on more than familiarity. One GOP strategist familiar with the state’s politics had a one-word suggestion for her: “Obama,” he said.
It would not be difficult to tie Rockefeller to Obama, who is deeply unpopular in West Virginia. Rockefeller has been an Obama loyalist since the 2008 campaign. Despite being an early supporter of President Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, Rockefeller endorsed Obama during the crucial final week of February 2008.
“If Shelley keeps it on Obama and coal it will be pretty hard for Rockefeller to recover,” the Republican strategist added.
But Rockefeller has strengths and Capito has vulnerabilities.
The senator has pervasive name identification. He has run statewide for decades — including against Capito’s father, the late former Gov. Arch Moore, in the 1970s. Democrats expressed confidence that Rockefeller would beat the congresswoman, if he runs for a sixth term.
While West Virginia is moving in Republicans’ direction, it is still a state racked with poverty and home to an outsized elderly population. Democrats and Republicans alike say the way for Rockefeller to win is to nationalize the race.
He must paint the moderate Capito as completely in line with the conservative House majority and its leadership.
“I wouldn’t worry too much about Shelley Moore Capito,” Kanawha County Democratic Chairman Norris Light said. “The people in Kanawha County — it’s the largest county of the state of West Virginia — seem to think she’s lining up with whatever the Republicans want to do and she follows the party lines and so on.”
“There’s a whole bunch of things that she’s not on the same wavelength with the average citizen here in Kanawha County,” he added.
As one of the poorest states in the country, any sort of alliance with those who want to cut Social Security or Medicare is toxic. Republicans maintain that the Capito brand is one of moderation.
State Democrats, meanwhile, are reluctant to discuss a plan B candidate, maintaining that they hope Rockefeller runs.
If he does retire, political speculators say the next most viable Democratic candidate is Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Another person on the farm team is former Sen. Carte Goodwin, who was appointed to the Senate in 2010 as a caretaker to succeed the late Sen. Robert Byrd.
Others to watch include West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis.