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GOP's top 2014 Senate opportunity

| Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:01 p.m.

WEIRTON, W.Va.

As long as Republicans do not kick away a golden opportunity, wonderfully wild West Virginia could be their best U.S. Senate pickup prospect of the 2014 midterm election.

With incumbent Democrat Jay Rockefeller's decision to retire, the door has opened for a strong Republican candidate to win in a state that has pivoted away from Democrats in presidential races as well as in its congressional delegation.

Mountaineer Republicans never were able to knock off another Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin, but a number of factors worked against them. First, in fairness, Manchin basically is a Republican; second, he was a popular pro-gun, pro-life, pro-coal, pro-shale governor; third, his competition has been weak.

Thirty-five Senate seats will be up in November 2014 — 33 regularly scheduled races and two special elections, in Hawaii and South Carolina.

Democrats hold 21 of those seats and Republicans 14, said University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik.

“Obviously, these numbers would seem to benefit the Republicans — especially because, of the 14 Republican-held seats, there aren't really any obvious Democratic targets,” Kondik explained.

That is, unless Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, retires, but there's no indication she'll do so.

Then again, some strange primary outcome easily could turn a safe Republican seat into a competitive one. Think of 2012's primary defeat of Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., by foot-in-mouth challenger Richard Mourdock, a state official who lost a race that everyone knew he should win.

West Virginia may be the Republicans' best opportunity, but Kondik believes several others exist: “South Dakota's Tim Johnson, a Democrat, may retire — and even if he doesn't, ex-Gov. Mike Rounds, a Republican, will be a very strong challenger, assuming he runs, which is likely.”

Other Republican-red-state Senate Democrats who probably face tough races are Alaska's Mark Begich, Arkansas' Mark Pryor, Louisiana's Mary Landrieu and North Carolina's Kay Hagan.

Given that Democrats hold a 55-45 edge in the Senate, Republicans can win a narrow majority if they hold their current seats and capture the six mentioned above — all in states that Republican Mitt Romney won in 2012.

“That said, in recent years, Republicans have kicked away many good Senate opportunities,” said Kondik.

Of course, fall 2014's political climate is unknown. Midterms often are bad for an incumbent president's party, but that doesn't necessarily mean 2014 will be bad for Barack Obama.

Republicans have held a 2-1 edge in West Virginia's congressional delegation for two election cycles; further down-ballot, Democrats still hold the state's House of Delegates — but Republicans added 11 new seats in last year's election.

And “cracks are starting to appear in the state's conservative Democratic foundation: Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Southern West Virginia Democrat, has had two difficult elections,” said Kondik, referring to 2012 and a 2011 special election.

“Will West Virginia retain its split national/statewide character, or will it go the way of much of the South, which over the past few decades saw its presidential Republicanism trickle down the ballot?” he asked.

That is the big question.

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is an incredibly strong Senate candidate for the GOP, even though out-of-state groups such as the Club for Growth have described her as too moderate.

Bear in mind that West Virginians have a history of not taking kindly to outside groups attempting to persuade them about who is best for them.

Democrats have a deep bench in the state because of the durability of their statewide brand, according to Kondik.

He points to Carte Goodwin, who briefly served as an appointed U.S. senator following the death of the legendary Robert Byrd, and whose wife works for Rockefeller; or his cousin, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin. Another example is the last Democrat standing in West Virginia's congressional delegation, Rep. Nick Rahall, who must be tiring of the relentless targeting of his seat by national Republicans.

Who turns out in midterm elections is a completely different electorate from those of presidential elections; it is a whiter, more conservative (although not necessarily more Republican) group, and it is less urban in its values.

Senate Republicans have a lot of demons to exorcise from the past two election cycles. They can start by running a good race here.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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