After repeatedly eschewing statewide campaigns, the West Virginia Republican starts 2014 as her party’s first full-blown Senate candidate — and perhaps the Senate GOP’s most prominent female candidate of the cycle.
“I’ve been a bridesmaid here,” Capito said in a wide-ranging interview with CQ Roll Call last week. “I’m really going to do it. I’m going to walk down the aisle.”
The GOP boasts immense opportunities to pick up Senate seats this cycle — and it needs a net of six victories to win control of the chamber. But a review of the 2014 Senate map shows few potential top-tier female recruits on the radar so far — especially a prospect as primed for a statewide run as Capito.
It’s still early in the cycle, but Republicans have openly discussed their problems wooing female voters. Thanks to her tone and style, Republicans say Capito would be in a position to help her party with outreach to women.
“We’re invested in every race that we might win, but Shelley’s just a clear, standout candidate,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a phone interview. “It’s not just that she’s a woman and a strong woman, but she’s a smart person.”
The big question is: Can Capito win in this traditionally Democratic stronghold? So far, she’s the only serious candidate to announce a bid for retiring Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s seat.
But Democrats and Republicans alike have threatened challengers, and Capito has not had a tough race in more than a decade.
The Club for Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund pushed back within minutes of her announcement in late November. But not a single conservative challenge to her candidacy has emerged.
Conservatives dislike Rep. David B. McKinley, R-W.Va., for the same reasons they have concerns about Capito. Besides, Republicans say he’s unlikely to run for the seat.
Then there’s businessman John Raese, who hasn’t ruled out a run. Raese lost his fourth bid for Senate in the Mountain State in 2012. He also ran against Capito’s father, former Gov. Arch Moore, in 1988 — and some local Republicans say he’s held a grudge against her family ever since.
Despite this, Capito has her eye on that phantom threat. Why? The small population of registered Republicans is unpredictable.
“In our state, a primary, we only have 29 percent Republicans. So, your pool is small,” she said. “It does influence your strategy because you’re targeting a much smaller group. Anybody who’s run in a primary will tell you, it’s hard to poll them, it’s harder to find them, it’s harder to determine what direction you’re going.”
Capito hopes to avoid a primary, but she did note that a nomination fight “hones your message, invigorates your supporters, all those kinds of things.”
Republicans have made significant headway in the state recently, but Democrats continue to hold a huge voter registration advantage. If Capito wins the primary, Democrats are prepared to destroy her brand via the state’s inexpensive ad markets.
EMILY’s List, the pro-abortion-rights group dedicated to electing Democratic women, is not about to give Capito — who favors some abortion rights — a pass on the issue.
“Is she going to be the only voice that stands up to her party’s ridiculously backward extremism that makes this the most regressive party in decades?” EMILY’s List spokeswoman Jess McIntosh asked. “That seems unlikely to me.”
Potential Democratic candidates include state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis, former Sen. Carte P. Goodwin, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II and West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.
When he was governor, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III appointed Goodwin to the Senate after Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd died in 2010. Goodwin’s wife is Rockefeller’s state director.
Republicans point to a new GOP poll showing Capito with an 18-point lead over Rahall. She boasted a 63 percent job approval rating, according to the survey from GOP pollster Mark Blankenship, conducted on behalf of West Virginians for Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
But for Capito, the right opportunity has finally come at the right time: She has a dynastic local brand and flush bank account amid a changing West Virginia electorate. She’s passed on statewide bids in almost every recent cycle: the Senate seat in 2008, the Senate special election for Byrd’s seat in 2010 and the governorship in 2012.
“I can’t rely on the strength of my own personality to win a Senate race, but I can rely on the strength of my personality to communicate the issues that I think are really important,” she said.
Most importantly for Republican insiders, she’s a trained candidate with honed on-message skills. Senate Republicans have failed to pick up five Senate seats in the past two cycles because of lackluster nominees in otherwise winnable races.
“She’s unlikely to say the crazy stuff that gets people in trouble,” said a K Street lobbyist who has been dismayed with the tea party’s involvement in primaries.