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Tennant moves the needle in West Virginia

West Virginia and national Democrats finally have a candidate in the Mountain State’s open Senate race: Secretary of State Natalie Tennant (D) will reportedly enter the contest Tuesday morning. Her entry, which has been rumored for months, gives Democrats a credible opponent for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R, WV-2), the likely Republican nominee. We are changing the rating in this race from Likely Republican to LEANS REPUBLICAN. With a successful statewide elected official now running, Democrats have kept the race on the competitive board, but it would still be a significant surprise if Republicans fumbled away one of their best pickup opportunities in the country.

Capito remains the favorite, and we would be surprised if she ultimately lost the race: The state has trended hard to the right in presidential contests over the past four elections, and Capito is a tested candidate whose election in 2000, along with George W. Bush’s statewide victory, represented an early, tangible sign of what became a significant shift in the state’s national political alignment, going from one of the most Democratic states in the Electoral College as recently as 1988 to one of the most Republican in 2012. Capito, a relative moderate in the GOP, has frustrated Democrats over the years by holding on to her seat: After winning with just 48% in 2000, she hasn’t dipped below 57% since.

While a Republican hasn’t won a Senate race in West Virginia in more than half a century, Capito’s father, Arch Moore (R) — a popular former governor who was later incarcerated for fraud and extortion — came the closest in that timeframe to breaking the Democratic hammerlock on the state’s two seats. He only lost by one percentage point in his challenge to Sen. Jennings Randolph (D) in 1978. Randolph retired in 1984, which opened the seat up for Jay Rockefeller (D). Now that Rockefeller is retiring after five terms in office, the Moore clan has another shot at the Senate.

There have been rumblings of a Republican challenge to Capito in the primary because some outside groups don’t believe she’s sufficiently conservative — for what it’s worth, she has a 70% lifetime rating from the American Conservative Union, which is one of the more moderate scores in the House GOP caucus (100% is most conservative, 0% is most liberal). She has attracted a handful of primary challengers, most notably a former member of the state legislature, Pat McGeehan (R). Still, she does not appear to be in much trouble at the moment.

The best ally Capito has in this race is President Obama — his mere presence in the White House will hurt Democrats in conservative states. Obama will make it hard for any Democrats to succeed in Appalachia, and he is the single biggest factor in why we favor Capito to win, and also why we have held firm thus far on our rating of Likely Republican in Sen. Mitch McConnell’s (R) competitive reelection battle in neighboring Kentucky.

After graduating from West Virginia University in 1991 — where she was the first woman to portray the Mountaineer, the university’s mascot — Tennant spent many years as a TV reporter and anchor in Charleston and Clarksburg. She was comfortably elected and reelected as secretary of state in 2008 and 2012, respectively, and this will be the second time she’s run for office “from safety” in the middle of her term in office. In running an uphill Senate race, Tennant is risking a third statewide defeat: She lost the Democratic nomination for secretary of state in 2004, and in 2011 she finished third in a special Democratic primary election for governor.

Her husband, state Sen. Erik Wells (D), unsuccessfully challenged Capito in a 2004 U.S. House race.

Tennant has the potential to become something of a national figure among Democrats, along the lines of Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes (D), who is running against McConnell, although the prospect of defeating Capito isn’t going to fire up Democratic donors the way the possibility of beating McConnell does. EMILY’s List, the pro-choice outside group that supports female Democratic candidates, backed Tennant in her 2011 gubernatorial primary in a largely pro-life Democratic field and presumably will do so again. Interestingly, Tennant and Capito are both pro-choice on abortion in a socially conservative state, although some Democrats would quibble with how pro-choice Capito actually is. The backing of EMILY’s List and other liberal groups will undoubtedly provide Republicans with campaign fodder against Tennant. Assuming both make it through their primaries, Capito or Tennant will become West Virginia’s first female senator.

West Virginia remains a must-win for Republicans if they are to have any shot of netting the six seats they need to win the Senate. Their path to victory looks something like this:

  • Win the open seat in South Dakota, where so long as Republicans nominate a strong candidate (ex-Gov. Mike Rounds) they should have little trouble. We rate that race Likely Republican, and it should be the easiest Senate pickup for either side in 2014.
  • Then, capture open seats in Montana and West Virginia. We rate both as Leans Republican; freshman Rep. Steve Daines (R) could be the nominee in Big Sky Country if he runs. Democrats don’t really have a candidate yet, but they’re leaning on Lt. Gov. John Walsh (D) to run.
  • Finally, either defeat three of these four Democratic incumbents in states we rate as a toss-up — Mark Begich (AK), Mark Pryor (AR), Mary Landrieu (LA) or Kay Hagan (NC) — or expand the playing field by picking up a seat or two where Democrats are currently favored, like Colorado, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota or New Hampshire. That assumes that Republicans also hold their own potentially vulnerable seats in Georgia and Kentucky.

Democrats remain small favorites to hold the Senate, but control of the chamber is very much in play. Ultimately, Tennant’s entry in the race might not be enough to keep Capito from ascending to the Upper Chamber, but it could tie down Republican resources that might be better used in some of these other contests. That’s important in a cycle where Democrats are largely playing defense.

A quick Cornhusker note

Sen. Mike Johanns (R) surprised many with his February announcement that he would not seek reelection, leaving the race to replace him slow to develop. The field is now developing, at least on the Republican side: Former state Treasurer Shane Osborn, Midland University President (and former Bush administration official) Ben Sasse, banker Sid Dinsdale and attorney Bart McLeay have all declared their candidacies. A recent poll indicates that Osborn is the early favorite in the GOP primary, but considering the unexpected success of now-Sen. Deb Fischer (R) during the 2012 cycle, a September 2013 poll doesn’t say much about the final result next year.

Meanwhile, it’s all quiet on the Democratic front — our Cornhusker sources tell us that Democrats are having trouble finding anyone of note to run.

When Johanns announced his retirement, we moved the seat to Likely Republican to reflect the race’s greater level of uncertainty. But given Nebraska’s conservatism and the lack of movement on the Democratic side, we’re moving this contest back to SAFE REPUBLICAN. It would ultimately be shocking for Republicans to lose this race next fall in a state where Mitt Romney won about 60% of the vote.

Chart 1: Crystal Ball Senate ratings changes

Our full Crystal Ball Senate ratings are available here.