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WV political experts weigh in on Capito's Senate announcement

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Updated 5:15 with comments from Neil Berch.

Political experts in West Virginia are expressing mixed opinions over U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's Nov. 26 announcement to run for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by senior Sen. Jay Rockefeller.

James White, a professor of political science at Concord University, said it's not unusual for members of the House of Representatives to want to move up to higher office. However, he said he thinks a lot of people in the state expected Capito to run for governor. After all, her father, Arch Moore, served the state as governor for three terms.

"It's interesting that she chooses the Senate seat in two years rather than waiting four years to run for governor, but I think everybody who's been watching politics knew she would eventually try to go some place other than the House," White said. "I think what it says about our state is that statewide prospects for Republicans apparently look better than they did in recent times."

Simon Perry, the retired chairman of the Marshall University Department of Political Science, said Capito should take a lesson from former Congressman Ken Hechler, who gave up his seat in the U.S House of Representatives in 1976 to run for governor. Hechler lost in the primary to Rockefeller, who served two terms as governor before ascending to the Senate in 1984.

"(Hechler) has said to me that this is one of the greatest political mistakes he ever made," Perry said, adding, "My advice is she needs to make sure that she has large pockets of support outside of her congressional district. I'm sure that she is aware of this, but it is risky in my judgment, and it also depends on who will be her opponent. Unless she has news that Rockefeller is retiring from the Senate — which I have not heard one way or the other — think it would be very difficult for her to defeat Sen. Rockefeller. But if the seat is going to be vacant, she'd have a much better chance."

Rockefeller gave no indication in his public response to Capito's announcement as to whether he intends to run in 2014 or not, and White doesn't see Capito's announcement as a sign.

"I don't think what Rep. Capito did reflects any decisionmaking on Sen. Rockefeller's part. I think it reflects a calculus of prospects whether or not he retires, particularly in a midterm election."

White said he imagines national-level Democrats and members of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will be talking with Rockefeller today and in the next few days asking him to run again in two years.

"Now he knows — here's the political science jargon word — he's going to have a 'high quality' challenger, but that's true most times for senate races," he said.

Rockefeller did say that West Virginians are tired of constant campaigning and elections, and Neil Berch, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, reflected similarly that it's unusual for anyone to announce so soon after an election.

 "She could have done it some time next year and would have comfortably fended off challengers in the Republican primary," Berch said.

Perry sees it differently: "If one is going to challenge — or with it being vacant — you have to start now. You don't have time to wait for the election campaign period."

Looking ahead, Berch observed that this will be one of the major Senate races of 2014.

"It will be looked at as a good chance for Republicans to pick up a seat and both sides will spend a ton of money," he said.

On that score, the early announcement should help Capito.

"The fact that she's the first declared Senate challenger for 2014 nationwide, as far as I'm aware, probably gives her an edge in fundraising. She doesn't have competition from Republicans across the country," Berch said. "I think she figures she has a chance of beating him, and if he retires she's clearly the favorite. She's putting it to him; he now has to decide if he wants to go out and raise $10 or $15 million."