West Virginia Senate: Democrats Look for Winner

Nathan L. Gonzales January 15, 2013 · 11:01 AM EST

Not too long ago, Democrats would have panicked if they had to defend a Senate seat in a state where their presidential nominee received 36 percent of the vote. But victories in North Dakota and West Virginia last year, and a strong cycle overall, have emboldened Democrats in the face of another familiar situation.

But next year’s fight to hold retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s (D) seat in West Virginia looks like the toughest hold of all, and may be closer to Nebraska, where Democrats lost an open seat in 2012.

Rockefeller’s exit after five terms leaves a huge void in the state, particularly after legendary Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D) death just a few years ago. But unlike the Byrd special election or even last year’s race in North Dakota, there isn’t a natural Democratic front-runner.

After appointing a caretaker, Gov. Joe Manchin (D) was able to win Byrd’s seat in 2010 (54 percent) and hold it for a full term by winning again in 2012 (61 percent), albeit against a mediocre candidate. Fueled by charisma and a flawless campaign, former state Attorney General Heidi Heitkamp (D) was able to squeak out a win in North Dakota with 50 percent in November as well.

But based on the initial list of potential Democratic candidates, none of them look like they can match Manchin’s or Heitkamp’s campaign skills. Republicans, on the other hand, already have a front-runner, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who looks like a stronger opponent than GOP nominees in the previously mentioned races.

Less than a week after Rockefeller’s announcement, the list of Democratic names is reaching closer to a dozen, but doesn’t include Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D). Just elected to a full-term in November with 50 percent of the vote, the governor said he wasn’t interested in a Senate bid.

Other Democrats with various backgrounds are coming out of the woodwork to explore their options, but there is one unifying theme, “People don’t have any sense of what they are in for,” according to a local Democratic source.

The early attention appears to be focusing on former Gov. Gaston Caperton, state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis, former interim Sen. Carte Goodwin, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, and at least a half-dozen others.

Caperton
The former two-term governor (1988-1996) is getting considerable attention in local media. Caperton’s potential candidacy casts a shadow on the race and could impact how many people get in. In his first election, Caperton defeated Gov. Arch Moore (R), Capito’s father, when the incumbent was under an ethical cloud. Moore eventually pleaded guilty and served three years in prison on corruption charges but subsequently tried unsuccessfully to withdraw that plea.

But Caperton is also 72 years old (he’ll be 74 on Election Day 2014), and it’s unclear whether he wants to run again. Last year, former Gov. Angus King (I) won an open Senate seat in Maine at 68 years old.

According to one local Democratic source, Caperton indicated privately a couple years ago that he was done with elective politics. Caperton is wrapping up over a decade as president of the College Board, based in New York City, where he has been living with his third wife. He has maintained a residence in West Virginia for years in the Panhandle, but now in Charleston, where he purchased a home from state Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman (D).

[11:51am update: Caperton told local media that he wasn't interested. Read the Roll Call write-up.]

Seeking to draft Caperton would follow the Manchin path, but Democrats might instead look to follow the Heitkamp model by recruiting a woman.

Davis
On one level, Robin Davis looks like the type of candidate that Democratic strategists love: A woman who holds statewide office, doesn’t have a legislative voting record, and has personal money to invest into a race. But it may not be that simple.

Davis, 56, was a practicing attorney until she became the second woman ever elected to the state Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. She was elected to an unexpired term and then re-elected in 2000 and 2012 to 12-year terms. Last year, Davis spent $1.3 million on her race, including $900,000 of her own money, according to the Charleston Daily Mail. Four candidates ran for two positions in that race and Davis finished first with 27 percent while the three other candidates received 26, 24, and 23 percent.

But Davis would have to give up seat on the court in order to run, which some insiders don’t believe she’ll do, and her family’s wealth could be controversial in a state such as West Virginia. Her husband, Scott Segal, is a very successful trial attorney, and the couple has a reputation for luxurious living among insiders that could be exploited to the general electorate. And while Davis is viewed as intelligent, she is not regarded as being particularly warm. The way local Democrats talk about her is about the opposite of Heidi Heitkamp, who thrived on personal charisma.

Goodwin
Carte (pronounced KART) Goodwin, 38, was general counsel to Manchin until the governor appointed him as the caretaker for Byrd’s seat for the last half of 2010. Goodwin left a good impression during his time in office and is well-liked in Washington, but he is also still not particularly well-known to the average West Virginian.

But the extended Goodwin family is embedded deep within the Democratic Party in the state, although always behind the scenes and never in elected office. Goodwin’s wife is also state director for Sen. Rockefeller.

With a limited political record, the young, good-looking Goodwin could be an attractive candidate. But while the Democrat has held office, he has never been a candidate and a high-profile U.S. Senate race would be quite a jump. The clean slate might be an asset, but he also doesn’t start with as strong of a profile as Manchin or Heitkamp.

Rahall
Nick J. Rahall II, 63, is also publicly exploring his options. First elected to Congress in 1976, Rahall represents the southern, rural third of the state. While the geography could be an asset in a crowded primary (southern West Virginia traditionally has high turnout), and the congressman could benefit from strong support from organized labor, 36 years of votes in Washington could be a liability in a statewide general election.

Personally, “Nicky Joe” is regarded as a likeable guy, and he disposed of long-shot Republican challengers in both 2010 (56 percent) and 2012 (54 percent). But according to one Democratic source in the state, the congressman still isn’t up to speed in terms of modern campaigning.

Rahall has also had some bad publicity in the past, most of which was at least a decade ago, but, more recently, his son has had various public run-ins for drug issues with law enforcement.

Tennant
On paper, Natalie Tennant looks like an appealing candidate. The 45 year-old Democrat grew up on a farm in Marion County in northern West Virginia and also graduated from West Virginia University, where she was the first woman to be the school’s Mountaineer mascot.

She leveraged her broadcast journalism degree into a decade of anchoring news for WBOY in Clarksburg and WCHS in Charleston, and co-anchored at times with her husband, Erik Wells. The couple owns Wells Media Group, a Charleston-based video production and media training company. Wells ran for Congress in 2004 and lost to Capito, 58 percent to 42 percent, and two years later was elected to the state Senate. He has been mentioned as a potential U.S. Senate candidate, but another run in the now-open 2nd District seems more likely.

While Wells was running for Congress the first time, Tennant ran for Secretary of State but lost to an aging Ken Hechler (who had held the post for 16 years previously) in the Democratic primary. In 2008, when the position opened up again, Tennant ran, defeated a couple state legislators for the nomination and won the general election. She was re-elected in November with 62 percent.

Tennant was supposed to be Tomblin’s stiffest competition in the 2011 gubernatorial election but finished a disappointing and distant third (garnering 17 percent). She had some natural name identification from her television days and her office, but had difficulty raising money (even with EMILY’s List support) and lacked a natural base of support.

More Democrats?
Former congressional nominee Mike Callaghan is telling some local Democrats that he is running. The 39-year old former assistant U.S. attorney and former chairman of the state party lost to Capito in 2006 (57 percent to 43 percent) and is now a practicing attorney and owns a real estate firm. But he probably isn’t the heavyweight Democrats are looking for.

Ralph Baxter is president and CEO of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a San Francisco-based international law firm with 1,100 attorneys in 25 offices. Baxter, who planned to step out of his position at the end of the year after 25 years, is said to have been eyeing a run for office in West Virginia for some time.

He set up his firm’s Global Operations Center in Wheeling, where some of the firm’s legal work can be done at a fraction of the cost compared to California or New York. He serves on a number of boards in West Virginia, was inducted into a Marshall University Hall of Fame a few years ago for his work on education, and is believed to have deep pockets. He is somewhat of a wild card but wealthy candidates don’t have the best track record in West Virginia over the last decade or so.

A number of other candidates names appear to be recycled from the 2011 gubernatorial race.

State House Speaker Rick Thompson (D) finished second (24 percent), behind Tomblin (40 percent) and ahead of Tennant, with help from organized labor. He could mount a credible campaign once again, but would likely face very difficult race if Rahall runs and consolidates labor support. Thompson, 60, has been speaker since 2007, but narrowly held his position most recently after some younger legislators were looking for a fresher face.

[[11:22pm update: Thompson's consultant told The Hill that the Speaker has no intentions of running.]]

State Treasurer John Perdue (D) was re-elected with 55 percent in November, but received just 13 percent in the 2011 gubernatorial primary and wouldn’t be considered a top tier Senate candidate. Perdue was a popular senior aide to Caperton and as the governor was leaving office, he helped pave the way for Perdue to get elected treasurer.

Perdue won that 1996 race and hasn’t been seriously challenged since. In 2004, when Perdue wanted to run for governor, his former boss supported Lloyd Jackson instead. Jackson went on to lose the primary to Manchin. Perdue has been running for governor for the last 15 years, according to local Democratic sources, and he has a reputation for being very political (which isn’t necessarily good).

Another candidate from 2011, state Senate President Jeff Kessler (D) is mentioned as a potential Senate candidate. While he is regarded as a “country gentleman” and is a well-liked legislator, local sources say he appears to be allergic to raise money and finished fifth with 5 percent in the gubernatorial primary. The 57-year old attorney and former municipal judge has been serving in the state Senate since 1997 and became president when Tomblin ascended to the governorship.

According to the Charleston Gazette, the Democratic list continues, including Retired Adjutant General Allen E. Tackett, who headed the West Virginia National Guard and was a close friend of Byrd, state Sen. Corey Palumbo, former Democratic Party chairman Nick Casey, and former state Sen. Jim Humphreys. Humphreys, a wealthy attorney, lost to Capito in 2002, 60 percent to 40 percent.

The Republicans
Shelley Moore Capito, 59, was first elected to Congress in 2000. She represents the 2nd District, a third of the state in a horizontal band across West Virginia’s center, and is regarded as a fairly moderate Republican.

In an effort to get out front of potential GOP challengers, Capito announced her Senate bid just three weeks after Election Day. Even though her colleague Rep. David McKinley (R) hasn’t officially ruled out a Senate run, local observers agree that her early maneuvering made his bid even more unlikely.

There are still outside groups, such as the Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform and the Senate Conservatives Fund, that are looking for alternatives to Capito because they don’t believe she is conservative enough. But there also doesn’t appear to be an appetite to oust her or a candidate in West Virginia to take up the mantle against her, although that could change.

Businessman Bill Maloney is one obvious name, since he fell just short of winning the governorship in 2011 and 2012. But he doesn’t appear to be initially enthusiastic about running again after two tough general elections in the last two years.

The Bottom Line
Democrats are hoping that a bitter Republican primary will allow them to face a damaged and potentially polarizing GOP nominee. That’s not unreasonable based on Republicans’ track record nationwide and similar scenarios playing out elsewhere in 2010 and 2012, but it looks like it will be Democrats who will have the more competitive primary in 2014.

Last week, DSCC Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado declared that he is confident the party can hold the seat with an “independent-minded Democrat.” That’s reasonable analysis but looks to be a tougher challenge based on the current roster in the state, considering expressing independence could be difficult for the Democratic nominee.

In 2010, Manchin made a name for himself, in part, by airing one of the most famous television ads in recent history when he shot President Obama’s cap-and-trade bill with a rifle. It is very unclear whether there is an appetite for that type of ad in the wake of recent gun tragedies or if a Democrat can even highlight the gun issue as a declaration of independence, as many southern Democrats have done in the past.

It’s obviously early and the candidate fields remain fluid, but Republicans look to be in good initial position in West Virginia next year, even though they have thrown away victories like this before.