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West Virginia: Rockefeller Retirement Spurs Search for Conservative Candidate

Capito is running for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Capito is running for Senate. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

National Republicans’ primary problems from the past two cycles are floating to the surface once again in West Virginia.

Conservatives immediately jumped on the news of West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s retirement, noting that there is now no reason a “conservative” candidate can’t win the seat next year with the five-term iconic Democrat absent from the ticket. Conservatives and establishment Republicans have battled in recent election cycles over which GOP Senate primary candidate was best positioned to win a general election.

In a statement Friday morning, Senate Conservatives Fund Executive Director Matt Hoskins said “the door is wide open for Republicans in West Virginia to nominate a true conservative,” citing President Barack Obama’s 26-point loss in the state in 2012 as evidence that a conservative would have no trouble winning. The Senate Conservatives Fund and other like-minded groups oppose Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, who jumped into the race a few weeks after the Nov. 6 elections and was immediately hailed by many Republicans in Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

“We’re not going to stop looking for a conservative challenger in this race until the primary is over,” Hoskins said. “The voters in West Virginia get to decide who represents them and they should have a conservative choice.” The Senate Conservatives Fund is a super PAC founded by former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who resigned his seat and jumped to The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think thank.

Republicans lost a handful of winnable Senate seats in 2010 and 2012 in large part because candidates deemed unelectable were nominated, although establishment GOP candidates also fell short in the most recently concluded elections.

Capito’s entrance to the Senate race was immediately met with pushback from the Senate Conservatives Fund and the Club for Growth, who balked at her congressional record and highlighted the 2012 losses by GOP establishment candidates such as Montana then-Rep. Denny Rehberg and North Dakota then-Rep. Rick Berg.

Capito is widely considered a strong contender for the seat, though Rockefeller told The Associated Press in an interview that her entrance played no part in his decision to retire.

Democrats are not expected to give up on the seat with Rockefeller out. The state just elected Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III to a full term in November, and CQ Roll Call reported a few potential Democratic candidates Friday morning: former Sen. Carte P. Goodwin, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Davis.

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