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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.
Rahall’s 3rd District, in which Obama won just 33 percent of the vote, his lowest in the state, is rated a Tossup by Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call. Jenkins, in a further illustration of West Virginia’s political state, switched from the Democratic to Republican party to challenge the 19-term incumbent. If Rahall, the last Democrat in the House delegation, comes back for another term, Republicans said state Del. John O’Neal, former state Sen. Bill Cole and state GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas would be top contenders.
Some Democrats grumbled that if Rahall loses that seat, the party’s chances of winning it again in the near future are grim. Still, other Democrats point to former state Speaker Rick Thompson, Reynolds and Green as recruits who could put the seat in play.
The other big House race in West Virginia this cycle is the race to replace Capito. The GOP primary is crowded and disorganized. The top three candidates are former U.S. International Trade Commissioner Charlotte Lane, former Maryland GOP Chairman Alex Mooney and pharmacist Ken Reed.
While this is generally considered a Republican district, Democrats fielded a strong recruit in former state Democratic Chairman Nick Casey. Should Casey win, it would undoubtedly be a top GOP target in 2016. Republicans said state Dels. Eric Nelson, Paul Espinosa and Tim Armstead, the state House minority leader, would be seriously recruited early next year.
And if Casey loses, state Democrats named state Dels. Isaac Sponaugle and Skaff, and state Sen. Erik Wells, Tennant’s husband, as potential future recruits.
In the 1st District, the speculation in West Virginia is that McKinley is eyeing a gubernatorial run. Among potential successors, state Republicans named McKinley’s son, also named David, state Dels. Amanda Pasdon and Storch, and businessman Mac Warner, who ran in 2010.
Democrats, who lost the seat in 2010, said it could be in play in an open-seat situation and pointed to state Speaker Tim Miley as a legitimate contender.
Farm Team is a weekly, state-by-state look at the up-and-coming politicos who may eventually run for Congress.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misspelled the state attorney general's last name. It is Morrisey.