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Natalie Tennant To Run for Senate in West Virginia

The Democrats have finally found a top-tier candidate to run for the Senate seat of retiring senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). She is West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant. The first thing she said when starting her campaign is that she disagrees with the Obama administration's position on coal.

Running a Senate race on a pro-coal platform may seem like an odd thing to do, but West Virginia is an odd state. It is the second poorest state. Only Mississippi is poorer. West Virginia has a median household income $37,227, compared to the richest state, Maryland, where the number is $62,372. Nevertheless, West Virginia has gone from being a key member of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's coalition to being a fairly Republican state in presidential elections in recent years, even though Republican policies to cut taxes on upper-income earners have little value for West Virginians.

Consequently, West Virginia Republicans generally don't emphasize tax cuts in their campaigns. Instead, they focus on the fact that Democrats want to reduce the use of coal (because it pollutes the air and is one of the main contributors climate change). Hence Tennant's first task is to separate herself from the national Democrats on coal policy.

The NRSC is backing Rep. Shelley Moore Capito as the Republican Senate nominee. She is the daughter of Arch Moore, governor of West Virginia from 1969 to 1977 and later from 1985 to 1989. The senior Moore later served nearly 3 years in federal prison on corruption charges, so his daughter is not likely to use him as a campaign surrogate, even though he is still alive.

Although Capito is the establishment favorite for the Republican nomination, she first has to beat back a tea party challenger, Pat McGeehan. Conservatives have criticized Capito for her votes on the bailout of the automobile industry and the debt ceiling. As we have seen many times now, tea party challengers have beaten establishment candidates in Republican senatorial primaries only to go down to defeat to weak Democrats in red states and that could happen here, too. So Capito must tack hard to the right to get past McGeehan and then tack back to the center if she gets to run in the general election. This is never easy. However, given the lean of the state (Romney won 62% of the vote here), the Republicans are still probably slight favorites to pick up this seat. Since they need a net win of six seats to control the Senate, this is going to be one of the biggest battlegrounds.

Also worth nothing is that despite Romney's big win in West Virginia in 2012, the state has a very strong populist streak. All the statewide elected officials are Democrats. Tennant will no doubt try to run as a populist, attacking Capito for voting to privatize Social Security and Medicare. She will also nuance her stand on coal by pointing out that she supports the coal miners and their unions rather than the coal companies. Of course, if McGeehan upsets Capito in the primary, all bets are off and it will be uncharted territory.

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