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West Virginia Undergoing Political, Generational Change

West Virginia’s political move to the right over the last 15 years could take another big step in November.

Democrats still have a hefty voter-registration advantage and control of both Senate seats, the state Legislature and the governorship. But the Mountaineer State is undoubtedly trending Republican at the federal level.

The shift at the ballot box began at the turn of the century and the pace has picked up since President Barack Obama took office. If all goes well for the GOP this year, the party could win control of four of the five seats in the state’s congressional delegation, with Sen. Joe Manchin III the remaining Democrat.

But the state is also experiencing a generational change. Democratic Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller held their seats for decades, so only in the last five years — with Byrd’s death and Rockefeller retiring this year — have ambitious politicians had multiple avenues to run for higher office.

“This is a pivotal moment for West Virginia,” said Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who is seeking the state’s open Senate seat. “We’re on the precipice of big change. ... I think West Virginia will be an interesting state to watch.”

For decades, Capito’s father, former Gov. Arch Moore, was the Republican outlier in a state of so many Democratic personalities. But 2000 proved consequential in West Virginia political history. The state went for George W. Bush in the presidential contest, and Capito broke the Democratic hold on the delegation. If elected in November, Capito would be the first West Virginia Republican to win a full Senate term since 1942.

Since Bush took 52 percent in his first election, Republican presidential nominees increased their vote shares every four years, most recently with Mitt Romney winning with 62 percent in 2012.

Still, Democrats remain optimistic about potential prospects for statewide office.

Capito is the favorite this year in the race for Rockefeller’s seat against West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. However, Tennant kept pace with Capito’s fundraising last quarter, and if Tennant comes up short, Democrats said she still has a political future ahead of her in the state.

State and national Democrats also named state Dels. Doug Reynolds and Doug Skaff, along with state Sen. Mike Green as future statewide contenders. They also named former Sen. Carte Goodwin, who was an appointed placeholder after Byrd’s death, as a legitimate political player.

“He could run for anything,” one national Democrat said. “The man was a U.S. senator.”

Among potential Republican statewide aspirants, one GOP insider suggested Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton, who was approached to run against Manchin in 2010.

Other future Republican Senate contenders mentioned included state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, state Del. Erikka Storch, Rep. David McKinley and state Sen. Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat challenging Rep. Nick J. Rahall II this year.

The loss of seniority in the state’s five-person delegation is expected to take another hit this year with Rockefeller retiring, Capito leaving the House and Rahall in the fight of his political life. Should Rahall lose, the delegation’s seniority would only reach back to 2010.

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