The GOP's Secret, Best Candidate
Shelley Moore Capito is poised to win a Senate seat in West Virginia in a race few people are talking about. She's OK with that.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va.—Shelley Moore Capito's biggest problem might be a rainy day. The candidate's late-morning rally here at the county's golden-domed courthouse drew just about 50 gray-haired supporters, die-hard humans huddled under makeshift canopies to avoid the steady drizzle. She gave a short speech, thanked people for attending in spite of the conditions, and shook hands with nearly everyone before boarding her campaign bus.
The event was the type of dreary affair reserved for campaigns who long ago lost hope and momentum.
That's not Capito. The 60-year-old Republican representative is on pace to win West Virginia's Senate race with ease: With just three weeks before Election Day, polls show her leading Democratic nominee Natalie Tennant by double-digits. And she's winning that success not despite a boring campaign—but exactly because of it.
Capito's drama-free approach has quietly made her one of the Republican Party's best candidates of 2014. She might not generate headlines, but her savvy and relatively centrist approach have her poised to win one of the GOP's most impressive victories: winning a Senate seat in West Virginia for the first time since the 1950s.
And if some people find that dull, Capito doesn't care. In an interview after her speech, she compared herself to the tortoise from Aesop's famous fable "The Tortoise and the Hare"—better to be slow and steady than fast and flashy. "It doesn't set up for a lot drama," said Capito.
Her approach has been a blessing for Republicans trying to win the Senate, who otherwise have been steeped in surprises during a tumultuous end to the midterm elections. Even as the GOP looks like the favorite to take a majority in 2015, they've been forced in their campaigns' final weeks to play defense in unexpectedly difficult races.
In South Dakota, the National Republican Senatorial Committee announced last week it would spend $1 million in TV ads in a race that for most the year appeared to be an easy pickup. Similar rescue efforts are underway in Kansas, and even two GOP-held seats, Kentucky and Georgia, have proven stubbornly competitive. The party might be trapped in a competitive race in Montana, too, had a plagiarism scandal not knocked the Democratic incumbent out of the race.
In contrast, Capito has turned West Virginia into a virtual lock for the GOP. At first blush, it doesn't appear much of an accomplishment, given West Virginia's hostility to President Obama—who lost the state by more than 25 points two years ago.
But the state is also a traditional Democratic stronghold that has been reluctant to elect Republicans to major statewide office. Its governor and both senators are all Democrats. And Tennant, West Virginia's secretary of state, has run the kind of populist-inflected campaign that's proven successful for fellow Democrats Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Democrats have criticized Capito's ties to Wall Street—she serves on the House Financial Services Committee and her husband has worked on Wall Street—with some success. In a fiery speech last week in Charleston, W.Va., at the state party's Jefferson-Jackson dinner, Tennant argued West Virginia couldn't "afford one more vote for Wall Street."
The effort, however, has failed to swing the race away from Capito. She has held her sizable edge for months, making the contest one that party committees and outside groups—grappling with a handful of competitive battles elsewhere—have largely ignored.
The Democrat had a harder time convincing voters that Capito is a rapacious capitalist bent on taking away their Social Security because, to a large degree, Capito lacks the sharp ideological edge of so many other Republican candidates. In an interview with National Journal last year, Capito said she didn't care if she was labeled a conservative. And Republicans watching the race have described her agenda, while undeniably conservative, as rooted in pragmatism.
Her ideas aren't from the "fire and brimstone" wing of the party, said one GOP operative granted anonymity to speak candidly, who noted that Capito has shied away from talking too much about repealing Obamacare, a program that has helped many West Virginians gain health insurance.
"A lot of politicians would be like, 'I gotta protect my right flank,' " said the strategist. "They'd be worried a bunch of right-wing activists would be mad at them. She doesn't really care."
Capito really did shake just about everybody's hand at the rally last week, apologizing for the weather and asking about their families. If she looked like a seasoned political pro, well, that's because she is—she learned politics from her father growing up and has been the de-facto face of the state's Republican Party for years. "She grew up around this stuff," said Greg Thomas, a veteran GOP strategist in the state. "She's disciplined, she's focused. She's a very genuine person. This is what she's wanted to do, and she's good at it."
Republican officials in the state say she's run not just a good campaign, but the kind of aggressive, diligent effort that few expected when the race began. It's why they credit her—and not the state's shifting political culture—with winning.
"Obama was unpopular in 2012 in West Virginia, and we didn't win every single seat," said Thomas. "It was a good year, not a great year. And this year is going to end up being a great year because Shelley has been such a strong leader for us."