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Rockefeller Winning Streak in Jeopardy

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo

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.

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