In a recent campaign commercial, West Virginia Senate candidate Natalie Tennant looks into the camera, tells the viewer she’ll “make sure President Obama gets the message,” and then grabs the lever to an electrical breaker, pulling it down to the “off” position with a clank.
At that point, the ad cuts to an image of the White House, its blazing rows of lights going dark one by one.
The campaign spot is meant to portray Tennant, the Democrat hoping to succeed Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) in this fall’s election, as an independent-minded maverick, one who will stand up to Obama and his proposed crackdown on coal-fired power plants. The administration’s plan to reduce carbon emissions would cost West Virginia’s mining industry millions in lost production and jobs, and could increase power costs for low- and middle-income residents, coal advocates say.
But whether Obama ever “gets the message” — from Tennant, at least — is looking more and more doubtful these days. The West Virginia secretary of state is fighting an uphill battle in her bid for the U.S. Senate, with recent polls showing her trailing Republican Shelley Moore Capito by an ever-increasing margin.
Capito In Control
Polls conducted this month show Capito, a seven-term congresswoman from the state’s rural east, averaging support from 54 percent of likely voters, compared to 37 percent for Tennant. Nine percent remain undecided.
Capito’s 17-point edge is her strongest showing yet. She had a 9-point lead in May and a 5-point advantage in August of last year, before Tennant entered the race. If elected, Capito, the daughter of former West Virginia congressman and governor Arch Moore, would become the first Republican elected to the U.S. Senate from West Virginia since 1959. (In a guaranteed first, the Mountain State will elect a woman to the Senate for the first time ever this year, regardless of who wins.)
Tennant’s campaign has been hampered by West Virginia’s shift from a reliably blue to an increasingly red state, as well as a popular opponent who has outraised her by a more than 2-to-1 margin.
Tennant’s biggest handicap, however, is one she shares with other Democratic candidates across the country this year: An unpopular president. Obama’s numbers are especially poor in West Virginia, where just 25 percent support him, according to recent polls. Despite her efforts — including the “lights out” ad — to show voters she’s willing to stand up to Obama, sharing that “D” with the president has become a scarlet letter of sorts for Tennant.
“I just don’t think another Democrat in the United States Senate is what we need right now,” Mae Rexrode, a Brandywine, W.Va., resident said recently as she ran errands in nearby Franklin. Both towns are in Capito’s congressional district. But Rexrode says her vote has less to do with supporting Capito — or opposing Tennant — than it does her frustration with the White House and the Democratic-led Senate.
“This president has been a disaster,” she said. “And I voted for him the first time. And the Senate’s just going right along with him. They’re not doing anything.”
Asked if she thought the Republican-led House was any better, Rexrode didn’t hesitate.
“No,” she said. “Absolutely not. I’d throw ’em all out if I could.”
Republicans aren’t bogged down with an unpopular president, though, and are expected to maintain, and probably expand, their lead in the House of Representatives.
Tennant isn’t the only one suffering from Obama’s lackluster ratings. He’s been a burden for Democratic congressional candidates in other states, as well. Conversely, the president has been a marketing bonanza for Republican hopefuls. Indeed, the GOP is growing more confident that it will flip at least six seats — the magic number needed to gain control of the Senate — in November’s mid-term election, and possibly as many as eight.
“[It’s] hard to see Capito losing at this point unless something very unexpected occurs,” says Geoffrey Skelley, associate editor of Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political prediction site run by the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
With two months to go, though, the race is far from over, of course. Stranger things have happened in the unpredictable world of politics. Just ask Eric Cantor.
The two campaigns responded to the poll results in predictable fashion this month.
Capito’s campaign played up the new numbers, spinning the results as a referendum on the candidates’ trustworthiness.
“These numbers show very clearly that Shelley Moore Capito’s message is resonating with voters,” Amy Graham, Capito’s campaign spokeswoman, said in a statement. “[They also show] a growing sense of mistrust and lack of confidence in Tennant.”
Not surprisingly, Tennant’s camp took a more populist tack.
“Polls don’t win elections, people do,” said Jenny Donohue, spokeswoman for Tennant’s campaign. “The people of West Virginia have elected Natalie statewide twice with more than 60 percent of the vote because they know she is an independent leader who will stand up to politics as usual and put them first.”
Tennant did get a potential boost recently with the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America’s political arm — the National Council of Coal Miners Political Action Committee, or COMPAC. Mining is a huge issue in coal-producing states like West Virginia and Tennant hopes the unanimous endorsement will blunt Capito’s ongoing volleys painting her as a partisan foot soldier who will support Obama’s so-called “war on coal.”
Commenting on the endorsement, Tennant took a none-too-subtle dig at her opponent.
“West Virginia coal miners deserve a senator who will put their health and safety above corporate profits,” she said, a reference to what Democrats say is Capito’s “cozy” relationship with Wall Street. The Republican congresswoman, who sits on the House Financial Services Committee and chairs the subcommittee that regulates banks and other financial institutions, has received some of her largest campaign contributions from the banking industry.
“While I am fighting to protect coal jobs and keep our miners working,” Tennant continued, “I will fight just as hard to keep them safe, and protect the health care and pensions they have earned.”
UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said Tennant is not the liberal Obamaphile Republicans are trying to make her out to be.
“Don’t let anyone fool you — Natalie Tennant is standing with coal miners in our fight against the Environmental Protection Agency,” Roberts said, referring to the agency heading up the administration’s new coal standards.
Political analysts say the endorsement may give Tennant a bump in the polls. But will it be enough to overcome Capito’s lead and West Virginia’s overall growing dissatisfaction with the national Democratic Party? Doubtful, says Skelley. He added, though, that if anyone could beat Capito, it’s Tennant.
“Democrats recruited perhaps the only candidate who could conceivably make this contest a real race,” he said.
Still, barring a game-changing development that derails Capito’s bid, the Republican’s lead “is probably insurmountable” at this point, he said, especially given her reputation as a Mountain State pragmatist.
“Capito is a moderate-conservative Republican who fits [West Virginia’s] politics fairly well,” Skelley said. “It’s hard to see anything besides some ugly scandal involving Capito seriously altering the environment in this race.”