"I bet this guy’s a hunter.” Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican congresswoman who gives every sign of winning her race for the Senate, points at a worker in the front row with a youthfully cherubic face underneath a camouflage cap. He looks up at her.
“Are you a hunter?” Capito asks.
The young man smiles shyly and nods his head. He is, in fact, a hunter. So is the guy next to him, also in a camo hat. She’s concerned, Capito assures them, about efforts in Washington to curb Second Amendment rights. She’s been fighting those efforts in the House, she offers. The audience stares back blankly.
The 60-year-old Capito is speaking in the break room at a precision metal stamping facility in this Ohio River town. The crowd numbers about 35, mostly men but a few women, factory workers clad in blue jeans, T-shirts, and work boots. Capito, the daughter of former congressman and governor Arch Moore, is wearing a suit and off-white high heels. Her constituents are seated at tables or along the back wall, while the congresswoman stands alone addressing them. Every few seconds, she takes a small step toward them, as if slowly wading into a pool to test the water’s temperature.
She goes on, telling them she’s also concerned about EPA regulations that are hurting coal mining and drilling efforts in West Virginia. Obamacare, too, has made health insurance more expensive for West Virginians. The state has just one provider, and it has jacked up premiums across West Virginia and taken a little more out of these workers’ paychecks.
“Any other questions?” she asks. They respond with silence. Tough crowd, but Capito is undeterred, making sure to shake everyone’s hand as they file back to work. A few more camo hats walk by.
“There’s a hunter. There’s another hunter. And there’s another hunter,” she says as they saunter past.
Capito may be underwhelming on the stump, but her chances of becoming the first Republican senator from West Virginia since 1959 look better than good. When they talk about their most likely Senate pickups in 2014, Republican strategists in Washington put West Virginia at the top of the list. The incumbent, Democrat Jay Rockefeller, announced early last year that he would be retiring. Democrats recruited Natalie Tennant, the secretary of state and a competent candidate, to run against Capito. But the latest polls show Capito ahead by double digits. Capito’s winning despite some objections from conservatives in her own party.
On fiscal and spending issues, Capito is a bona fide moderate, and the recent small-government, Tea Party trend of the GOP hasn’t reached West Virginia. She told the National Journal in January that one of her models is Alaska senator Lisa Murkowski, the quintessential Republican centrist. Capito and her fellow West Virginia Republican House member David McKinley get middling to dismal ratings from conservative groups like the American Conservative Union, the National Taxpayers Union, and Heritage Action. When Capito announced her Senate candidacy in November 2012, the Club for Growth issued a stinging memo denouncing the many federal spending projects she had supported over the years.
“Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government,” wrote Club president Chris Chocola. “She voted to bail out Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, for massive expansions of government-run health insurance, giveaways to big labor, and repeatedly voted to continue funding for wasteful earmarks like an Exploratorium in San Francisco and an Aquarium in South Carolina.”
When I ask her about the spending record in an interview in Ripley, she straightens up in her chair and leans forward, lowering her voice. “I was sent to Congress to represent 650,000 West Virginians,” she says. “I live in one of the states that is one of the most economically challenged states in the country. The only way to get our children out of poverty is to get them educated and healthy.” Expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, for instance, is a vote she’d “defend all the way down the line.” And in her defense, Capito’s been a consistent supporter of the Paul Ryan budget.
On top of the spending issues, Capito is to the left of the Republican party on abortion. “My position has been that abortion should be rare, no federal funding for abortion,” she tells me. “I would not vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.” According to National Right to Life, Capito voted against an amendment in 2011 that would have banned giving federal funds to community teaching health centers that train doctors and nurses to perform abortions, though her record otherwise shows consistent opposition to the use of federal funds for abortions. Capito also supported the federal ban on partial-birth abortion and voted to ban most abortions after 20 weeks.
In most red states, a record and rhetoric like that could earn a Republican candidate a primary challenge from the right. But no serious candidate jumped in against Capito. “I think what they really found is I am certainly in the mainstream of West Virginia thought of the Republican party, have a good record of reflecting that in my votes, and they probably found as they looked around West Virginia that I’m the one that can win,” she says.
It doesn’t hurt that she brings home the bacon. “I earmarked some public money to help the library here in Ripley get a new roof,” she volunteers. “I earmarked Sandyville a water/sewer project. You’re talking $35,000-type stuff.”
In addition, there isn’t much of a bench for West Virginia Republicans, and Capito is the party’s only player. “We would have considered supporting a conservative alternative,” says Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller, “if one had existed.”
And Capito has proven she can win. In 2012, she won Jackson County (home of Ravenswood and Ripley) by more than 30 points, outperforming Mitt Romney by 11 points and Democratic senator Joe Manchin by nearly 15 points. Across her district, she won nearly 70 percent of the vote.
That’s remarkable for this nominally red state. Conservative, rural, overwhelmingly white West Virginia has voted for the Republican nominee for president for four straight elections, but Democrats still thrive here. Party registration favors Democrats over Republicans by nearly two to one. The governor is a Democrat, and Democrats control both houses of the legislature. The state’s Democratic party is much more conservative than the national party, particularly on social and environmental issues. Manchin, the former governor, won his special election to replace the late Robert Byrd, a Democrat, in the Senate in 2010 with an ad that showed him shooting a bullet through the text of a cap and trade bill.
For 10 years, Capito was the lone Republican in West Virginia’s congressional delegation. In fact, she might be considered part of the GOP’s change in fortunes in the Mountain State. In 2000, George W. Bush became the first nonincumbent Republican presidential candidate to carry West Virginia since 1928. He did so by exploiting a schism within the Democratic party on surface mining. Bill Clinton had vacillated on the issue, while Al Gore was strongly opposed to the practice on environmental grounds. Bush, who came out in favor of surface mining, visited the state three times during his presidential campaign, including the weekend before Election Day. Capito, making her first bid for Congress, appeared at the rally with him.
“It was the day of my son’s last football game. And I was like ‘George Bush? Football?’ I went to George Bush, and my son lost in the playoffs,” she laughs. Bush captured West Virginia’s five electoral votes and, with Capito’s narrow victory, changed how the state’s voters saw the Republican party.
Michael Warren is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.