Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito begins the race to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in an extremely strong position, according to an automated poll conducted by the new GOP polling firm Harper Polling.
The poll tested both parties' primary fields and theoretical general-election matchups. What is clear from this early read is that Capito is well-known and, at least for now, is well-liked.
On the Democratic side, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II led the field of potential candidates and appears to be the strongest general-election nominee against Capito. In a general-election test, 50 percent of respondents said they would support Capito, while 32 percent said they backed Rahall. Eighteen percent were undecided.
The numbers slide for Democrats when Capito is matched up against former Sen. Carte P. Goodwin and state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis, neither of whom is very well-known statewide. Capito took 53 percent to Goodwin's 19 percent. Twenty-eight percent were undecided in that matchup. Against Davis, Capito took 51 percent and Davis had 24 percent. Twenty-five percent were undecided in that pairing. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, another possible Democratic contender, was not included in the survey. Tennant ran for governor in 2011, but she placed a disappointing third in the Democratic primary.
Fifty-five percent of respondents had a favorable impression of Capito, while 28 percent viewed her unfavorably. Sixteen percent of those surveyed had never heard of her or had no opinion.
This is an extremely early survey, and the contours of the race are likely to change in the next year and a half. Capito has not felt the full brunt of negative television advertising in years. West Virginia is also a cheap state to advertise in, so name identification won't be a problem for the eventual Democratic nominee.
Rahall, who has been in Congress since 1977, was clearly the best-known Democrat polled. He led the Democratic field with 38 percent followed by Davis with 17 percent and Goodwin with 8 percent. Thirty-seven percent were unsure.
Capito is the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination. The poll showed her taking 71 percent against GOP Rep. David B. McKinley, who garnered 15 percent in a test of the GOP primary. In a primary matchup against state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Capito led 73 percent to his 10 percent.
Former National Republican Congressional Committee polling director/deputy political director Brock McCleary is the principal at Harper Polling. McCleary has sought to create a GOP equivalent of the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. "The aim of his project is to give the GOP access to flexible, cost-effective polling data that matches what Democrats are producing," according to Politico.
McCleary said he has no client in the race and that the poll was conducted more out of curiosity than anything else. The survey was an automated phone poll, which traditionally has been considered less reliable than live interview surveys.
The poll was conducted on Monday night and had 1,444 respondents on the full sample with a margin of error of 2.6 points. This is an extremely large sample size. The GOP primary survey included 462 respondents with a margin of error of 4.6 points. On the Democratic side, 579 respondents participated in the survey with a 4.1-point margin of error.
Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed were self-identified Republicans, while 48 percent were self-identified Democrats.