WHEELING, W.Va. — Through seven terms in Congress, Shelley Moore Capito largely has avoided national attention. Now her U.S. Senate race has raised her profile as one of the Republican Party’s best hopes to tip the chamber’s balance of power.
The party could win a narrow majority this fall if it holds onto its 45 Senate seats and takes six of the 55 held by Democrats, including that of West Virginia’s Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring. Political strategists agree that Capito’s candidacy presents the GOP with a good opportunity.
"This race is quickly becoming ‘likely Republican’ if things continue to come together for Capito," said Kyle Kondik, a University of Virginia political analyst. "… She is one of the few moderate candidates out there and has the right profile in this state to become the first Republican senator since the 1950s."
If she beats her Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, Capito would become the state’s first female senator; she was its first female in Congress with her election to the 2nd District seat. She and Tennant have underfunded challengers with low name recognition in their parties’ May primary.
"My race for Congress in 2000 was so close, so close. But I knew if I won, it was big, not because it was me but because I was a Republican, which meant … all of those straight-ticket party voters started listening to the message and the messenger," Capito told the Tribune-Review during a visit to Wheeling last week.
A mother of three and grandmother of two, Capito, 60, pushed past the shadow of a famous father, former Gov. Arch A. Moore, to move from the state House of Delegates to the U.S. House and lead an ideological shift in partisan voting in West Virginia.
Democratic registration remains 2-to-1 in the state, but Bill Clinton was the last Democrat to win the presidential race here in 1996 — by a solid 15 percent. Four years later, George W. Bush won by nearly 7 percentage points, and subsequent GOP nominees won with increasing margins.
Now under President Obama, "folks have started saying, ‘Hey, wait a minute, I am losing my job’ or ‘My health care (insurance cost) is going up,’ " Capito said. "Our voters here now are doing what you want them to do — you want them to cross over and vote for the right person."
Tennant said that even as a Democrat, she would fight Obama’s clean air anti-coal policy and trade deals such as the 2005 Trans-Pacific Partnership that promotes Asia-Pacific economies. She has blasted Capito for being an original co-sponsor of the 2011 Flood Insurance Reform Act that threatened to raise rates dramatically.
"I’m running to put West Virginia first," Tennant said, "and it means working for West Virginia families by supporting a minimum wage increase, instead of working against them by hiking up flood insurance rates."
In November, Capito testified to a House Financial Services subcommittee that the law was not intended to harm policyholders, and that the problem could be fixed while still addressing a shortfall in the National Flood Insurance Program trust fund.
Capito was the lone Republican among West Virginia’s three members of Congress until David B. McKinley, 66, a Wheeling engineer, won the 1st Congressional District seat in 2010; he easily won re-election.
She knows voters such as Jerry Stephens, 64, a retired coal miner from her hometown of Glen Dale, split tickets. Stephens is a lifelong Democrat who finds himself voting for more Republicans.
"I supported Joe Manchin when he ran for governor and for U.S. Senate, and I am supporting Shelley in her bid for Senate," Stephens said.
He points to the economy and stringent regulations on the energy industry. Capito "has a calm sensibility about her that I trust to do a good job in the Senate."
Though her home is the capital city of Charleston, Capito fondly calls Glen Dale, a modest Ohio River town just south of Wheeling, her "home."
"It is also the hometown of my parents, Brad Paisley, and Lady GaGa’s grandparents," she joked to a lunchtime crowd attending a West Liberty University speaker series.
Her parents shaped her for success, she said. Her mother, also named Shelley, encouraged her to "always be true to yourself" when making choices.
"I translated that into my personality in how I serve people — to always listen, be honest and be modest," she said.
Her father, 90, a former congressman, became a popular governor who served three terms — the third after losing a 1980 bid to Rockefeller. In 1978, Moore lost a U.S. Senate race. As governor, he expanded the state’s road system, pushed for higher pay for teachers and negotiated the end to a 1973 prison riot and several coal miner strikes.
"His people skills were legendary," Capito said. "He taught me to make sure that everyone I spoke to felt as important as the person beside them, because they are."
But Moore’s legacy was marred by his handling of a settlement for the 1972 Buffalo Creek disaster — a coal slurry impoundment burst, killing 125 and wiping out thousands of homes — and by a 1990 guilty plea to corruption charges involving campaign money that landed him in prison for three years.
The ‘Civility Caucus’
Among Capito’s supporters is Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Missouri Democrat who served on the Financial Services Committee with her.
"She is a smart member who has perfected the art of being tough without being nasty," Cleaver said. Capito asks penetrating questions, "but she can do it in a way without offending anyone, and quite frankly, that is how she attracted my attention."
Though he believes in his party’s principles, "I don’t necessarily think it should mean we should demean Republicans" or vice versa, he said. The tone in Congress has become hostile, Cleaver said, leading to problems.
"That is why Shelley is easily recognized as an oasis."
Capito and Cleaver in 2005 started the "Civility Caucus," but it did not gain traction until they tried again in 2011.
"We still only have 12 members, so we’ve decided we are going to do a hostile takeover of the 120-member ‘Wine Caucus’ to get more people involved," she joked.
Capito has her critics.
Barney Keller, a spokesman for the fiscal watchdog Club for Growth, said her moderate stances, such as supporting earmarks and raising the debt ceiling, will keep the group from supporting her.
"She has a 50 percent rating with us, so that is not going to happen," Keller said.
The issues that affect people are numerous, Capito said. Chief among them: the $17 trillion debt that will burden generations; the negative economics of Obama’s signature Affordable Care Act; and increased pressure on the coal industry from Environmental Protection Agency regulations.
One man in the audience at Wheeling Artisan Center disputed her claim that everyone is unhappy with Obamacare, noting that "more than 10,000 West Virginians who are now covered" must be happy.
Capito said she’s glad they obtained insurance, but she hasn’t heard from anyone who is "happy" with the law.
She favors repealing the law but voted against October’s government shutdown as a way to achieve that. The shutdown was an unrealistic goal and crushed voters’ trust, she said. "The whole event was a futile exercise, and people in West Virginia could see right through it."
Since then, rattled members of both parties have tried to compromise, she said.
"We passed two budgets, we passed an appropriations bill that takes us through Sept. 30 … and we passed a fix to the flood insurance bill."
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]