Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is a safe bet to win the Republican Senate nomination Tuesday in West Virginia, but what happens to her 2nd District seat is far more unsettled.
Capito's reluctance to anoint a successor has unleashed a gold rush for Republicans in the district, where the president took just 38 percent of the vote in 2012. Seven GOP candidates are running for the party nod in a nasty, disorganized May 13 primary, which has left presumptive Democratic nominee Nick Casey free to spend the past year fundraising and quietly campaigning.
Even as the odds favor Capito's Senate run on Tuesday and in November, the seven-term congresswoman leaves behind chaos and uncertainty — and even a Democratic opening — in the race to replace her. Observers from both parties agreed: This seat is in play for Democrats, and it shouldn't be. “The fact that Nick Casey is sitting on a lot of money and has essentially an uncontested primary is something that we have to consider," state GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas told CQ Roll Call. "But, of course, competitive primaries are a good thing. Every dollar [Republican candidates] are spending promoting their own message ... they are reaching Democratic voters, as well."
Both state and national Republican strategists admitted privately that the GOP field is underwhelming. While she hasn't endorsed, Capito has previously said that candidate quality is key to keeping the seat in the Republican column.
"I think we can hold it, but not without a lot of resources and a good candidate,” Capito said in an interview last year .
The favorite among the Charleston-based party establishment is former U.S. International Trade Commissioner Charlotte Lane, a longtime politician who served in the state Legislature and the George W. Bush administration. She had the early advantage, with her political base rooted in the state capital, the population center of the state. Lane is also part of the national Republican program Project GROW, which seeks to boost female candidates in competitive GOP primaries.
But Lane's fundraising has lagged behind her two strongest rivals, former Maryland GOP Chairman Alex Mooney and self-funding pharmacist Ken Reed. That disadvantage came to light in recent weeks, as both candidates heavily outspent Lane in the final stretch of the campaign, according to pre-primary reports filed on May 1 to the Federal Election Commission. (See our fundraising chart here .)
Mooney, backed by national tea party groups, argues that his former state Senate district in Maryland, which neighbors the 2nd District's panhandle, shares many similarities. He now lives in that arm of the district, as does Reed.
Lane and Reed have branded Mooney as a carpetbagger. Mooney sought to defuse the label by arguing that he is part of a larger migration among Marylanders to the Mountain State.
Mooney is a former protege of ex-Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, R-Md., who lost re-election in 2012 after Democratic lawmakers drastically redrew Maryland's 6th District. Mooney briefly considered running for that seat last cycle when it was still unclear if Bartlett would run again.
Mooney alluded to the issue in an April ad. “Alex Mooney came to West Virginia to live in freedom, and he’ll fight Obama to preserve it," the ad's narrator says.
That did not stop Lane and Reed from hammering him. Reed addressed the issue subtly in a TV ad while highlighting his own roots in the state.
“I was born here, I grew up in West Virginia," Reed says as he drives a Jeep with a West Virginia University license plate. "Anybody around here will tell you, that means something.”
Lane went after Mooney head-on in a small-buy radio spot , with a faux tutorial for Mooney about West Virginia's state bird, capital and flower.
In the final days of the campaign, few watching the race on either side will say with confidence who they believe will win on Tuesday. Less than two weeks ago, most bets were on Lane; nearly every West Virginia Republican interviewed for this story said she was the candidate best able to win the general.
But Mooney is running an organized campaign with help from outside groups, and the recurring sentiment is that Mooney has the "momentum." This makes some state Republicans privately skittish.
The fear is that Mooney's recent move to the state and his push of the GOP field to the right will make it harder for the party to hold the seat in the fall. And most Democrats watching the race that spoke with CQ Roll Call said they would prefer to face Mooney. Casey's camp remained mum on its preferred rival.
Mooney's team dismissed the concerns.
"Alex Mooney has proven himself to be the best fundraiser and the only major conservative candidate in the Republican primary," Mooney political consultant Nachama Soloveichik said in an email. "Those are the qualities that will propel him to victory in the general election in West Virginia’s conservative second district."
National Republicans are somewhat dismissive of the fears and say that life will be hard for any Democrat in West Virginia as long as President Barack Obama, a deeply unpopular figure in the state, is in office.
He's a Democrat, but Casey is actually the candidate who most closely resembles Capito in disposition. He lacks the dynastic brand Capito inherited from her father, former Gov. Arch Moore, but he shares her crossover appeal.
Still, the top recruit is running in hostile territory and needs some breaks — including a wounded GOP nominee emerging from Tuesday's primary — for a realistic chance at victory in this midterm cycle.
The race is rated Leans Republican by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.