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Warren, Ryan Trade Barbs in West Virginia War of Words

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — Natalie Tennant and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have their differences, no question about it. From Obamacare to the Environmental Protection Agency, in fact, the West Virginia secretary of state and Massachusetts senator are about as far apart as two Democrats can get.

But the two had nothing but love for one another at a campaign rally inside the Rockefeller Ballroom at the Clarion Hotel here on Monday afternoon. Warren, a rising star in the Democratic Party, came to this Eastern Panhandle community to campaign for Tennant, who is seeking the Senate seat of the ballroom’s namesake, retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.). Tennant faces Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who represents West Virginia’s 2nd District, in the November election.

In The Spotlight

As Warren appeared for Tennant on Monday, another nationally known politician, U.S. Rep Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), was stumping for Capito a little more than 300 miles to the southwest, in the state capital, Charleston. The 2012 Republican nominee for vice president and House Budget Committee chairman appeared with Capito at a forum for business leaders.

The cameos by Ryan and Warren, both of whom have been mentioned as presidential contenders for 2016 (though the latter has said she’s not interested), had West Virginia front-and-center on the national political scene, for a day at least. The two visitors also had one another in their crosshairs.

“Shelley needs to win this Senate race so that we can keep the philosophy that Elizabeth Warren is trying to push on the country at bay,” Ryan told a local news program before the Charleston event.

Not to be outdone, Warren took Republicans, including Capito and Ryan, to task for an agenda that she says makes the rich richer at the expense of the middle class, the working poor — and college students facing tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The student loan issue has been a pet cause of Warren’s since her election two years ago.

Pocketbook Issues

Warren and Tennant touched on populist themes during Monday’s event — the minimum wage, Medicare and Social Security, student loans and banking reform, among others. The emphasis on pocketbook issues is a strategy the Tennant camp hopes will win over blue collar and middle class West Virginians, many of whom have turned West Virginia from a reliably blue state to one where the GOP has made strong gains in recent years.

Tennant trails Capito by about 10 points in most recent polls. And she lags behind in fundraising as well, with about $1.5 million in cash on hand compared to Capito’s $5 million. The Tennant campaign is counting on the appearance of Warren, a bona fide political star who has stumped for other Democrats across the country in recent weeks, to help rally the base and energize Democrats throughout the state.

An ‘Independent Voice’

Despite the polls and fundraising gap, an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 stood and cheered as Warren and Tennant took the stage.

Warren slammed Republicans for their positions on everything from health care to the minimum wage.

“The way I see this, Citibank and Goldman Sachs and all those other guys on Wall Street, they’ve got plenty of folks in the U.S. Senate willing to work on their side,” Warren told the ballroom crowd. “We need more people willing to work on the side of American families.”

She called Tennant a “fighter” for the middle class, and an “independent, strong voice” for West Virginia.

Warren’s mention of the two banks was no accident. Citigroup, the parent company of Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, are two of Capito’s top political contributors. Tennant has tried to make Capito’s ties to Wall Street a key issue in the campaign, hoping it will resonate with voters still struggling to recover from the financial crisis six years ago.

Warren said Capito is too cozy with the banking industry.

“I … have seen Congresswoman Capito in action on the House Financial Services Committee, and time and again I have watched her side with powerful financial interests over working people,” she said.

Differences Highlighted

Tennant praised Warren’s legislation to lower interest rates on student loans, a measure Senate Republicans successfully blocked last month.

Tennant told the crowd that she and Warren will work together to “create a future where our children can work hard, raise their families and achieve the American Dream right here in West Virginia.”

Warren, who was introduced by a law student who says she expects to rack up $100,000 in debt by the time she graduates, said Congress could “stitch up the tax loopholes” exploited by the rich, and use the savings to refinance student loans. But, she said, that’s an initiative Ryan, Capito and others in the GOP won’t get behind.

Tennant’s campaign also has played up Capito’s support of Ryan’s controversial budget proposals, particularly provisions that Democrats say would threaten social programs such as Medicare and Social Security, and cut safety programs for miners.

Capito’s camp says Tennant’s attacks are misleading and in some cases, downright false, noting that the congresswoman, considered by most to be far more moderate than Ryan and other conservatives, has championed several mine safety initiatives and “has fought to protect Social security and Medicare.”

Republicans have pounced on Tennant’s invitation to Warren to campaign with her in West Virginia. Courting the unabashedly liberal Massachusetts senator, they say, shows just how much Tennant is out of touch with West Virginians.

Joining forces with Warren is a risk she must take, though, given her position as an underdog, supporters say.

“Natalie has to do something to get Democrats pumped up,” Fred Johnson of nearby Martinsburg said. “The Capito campaign is trying to make Warren out to be some crazy liberal, and I suppose she is, but that doesn’t mean Natalie is. They don’t agree on everything.”

Indeed, Tennant, aware that courting Warren makes her vulnerable to the liberal label, made sure to highlight the differences she has with Warren, especially on the subject of coal, a bread-and-butter issue that’s near and dear to Mountain State residents.

She said she’s prepared to “stand up to [Warren] and to President Obama” to protect West Virginia’s coal industry and the miners who work for it. She has slammed the EPA’s recently announced regulations on coal-fired power plants — regulations that Warren wholeheartedly supports.

‘Out Of Touch’

But on Monday, Capito’s campaign again homed in on Tennant and Warren’s joint appearance, saying the two are more alike than not. The Republican’s campaign took particular aim at a comment Tennant made on Monday about Warren’s supposed similarities to West Virginians.

“Natalie Tennant’s statement today that Elizabeth Warren is ‘just like West Virginians’ says all you need to know about how out of touch she is with this state,” Amy Graham, a spokeswoman for Capito’s campaign, said in a statement.

What Graham’s statement didn’t point out was the context of Tennant’s comment. She was referring specifically to Warren’s rural Oklahoma upbringing and its similarity to how West Virginians brought up in sparsely populated areas of the state were raised.

Nonetheless, Graham claims Tennant is clearly more in tune with Warren than with Mountain State residents.

“What we saw today was Natalie Tennant hitting the panic button in a last ditch effort to save her struggling campaign. Her misleading personal attacks against [Capito] do not represent West Virginia values. Sadly, it just shows how low she will go to join her liberal buddies in the Senate.”

The Capito campaign on Monday issued a series of statements from several Republican senators extolling the virtues of Capito and her experience in the House.

“The choice in West Virginia seems really simple,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said. “[There’s] a strong leader like Shelley Moore Capito who puts forward smart solutions to fix the problems in our country and her state, or another rubber stamp for President Obama and his job-killing policies.”

The final three-word phrase of Vitter’s has been a popular mantra among Republican candidates eager to take control of the Senate. Tying Democratic candidates to President Barack Obama has also been front and center in the GOP’s strategy. The fact that the president, deeply unpopular in West Virginia, and Tennant have the “D” after their names is perhaps Tennant’s biggest obstacle to victory.

Whether the Republicans are successful in their efforts this year to paint Democratic candidates, regardless of their individual positions, as Obama clones remains to be seen.

For her part, Warren said the policies of Republicans are what won’t work for Americans, or for the GOP in November.

“They say it’s more important to stand up for Wall Street than it is to stand up for families across this country,” she told the cheering crowd on Monday. “Well I tell you what. They can say it, but they are going to lose.”

(For complete 2014 midterm coverage, get your campaign fix on The Grid.)