West Virginia Emerges as First 2014 Senate Race to Watch

Two big names who have a long-standing family drama could face-off in West Virginia in November, 2014, making the Mountain State's senate race for the seat held by incumbent Jay Rockefeller the first must-watched senate race of 2014.

Yes, the midterm elections in 2014 are still roughly two years away, and many more Senate, gubernatorial and House races will emerge as races to follow between now and then. But the announcement by Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito that she will run for Senate in West Virginia jump-started the first contest.

Capito, 59, is a six-term Congresswoman for the state's 2nd congressional district. She's the first Republican woman elected to represent the state, and from her first term in 2001 until 2010 she was the only Republican in the state's congressional delegation.

The seat Capito is seeking is currently held by Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who has held his seat since 1985. Rockefeller, 75, hasn't announced if he'll run again or if he'll retire. The senior senator has been coy when asked about his plans.

"West Virginians just want us to do our jobs, and for me that means focusing full-time on the serious issues at hand. Politics can wait," he said recently.

If Rockefeller does decide to seek re-election, the race is expected to be close.

"If he does decide to seek re-election it's one of the marquee races of 2014," says Neil Berch, associate professor of politics at West Virginia University. "He probably is somewhat more liberal than the state, Capito is probably somewhat more conservative than the state on economic issues. They're both really strong candidates, they both would raise a ton of money, and I think it would be one of the biggest Senate races of that cycle."

If he decides not to run again, Capito would likely have the edge in the state, but there is a bench of Democrats who could mount a strong challenge.

"Near the top of the list would be the governor, Earl Ray Tomblin, but I don't know that he has an interest in being in Washington. Secretary of State Natalie Tennant would also be a strong candidate," Berch said. "Tennant is clearly grooming herself for something bigger, and that would be a marquee race also."

Democrats will hold a 10 seat advantage over Republicans in the Senate - 55 to 45 - when the 113th Congress is sworn in in January, 2013. 33 Senate seats will be up for re-election in 2014, and 20 of them are held by Democrats, which is favorable math for the Republicans, but tricky nonetheless given their sizable numerical disadvantage. As a result, GOP pick-ups in purple states like West Virginia will be important.

Although she is well-established in the state- she's served in the House for over a decade and she is the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, Capito is already facing some opposition from within her party. South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint who heads up the Senate Conservatives Fund, a super PAC that traditionally supports tea-party affiliated candidates, announced on Monday that his group would not endorse Capito, because "her spending record in the House is too liberal."

"She'll probably face a primary, but I don't know who they'd put up," said Berch. "A tea-party candidate who could beat her in a primary would be at a disadvantage in the general election against whomever. Clearly Capito is the most electable Republican."

It bears noting that if Rockefeller decides to seek re-election, it won't be the first time Rockefeller has gone up against a member of Capito's family.

Rockefeller and ex-Gov. Moore had a long-standing political rivalry. In 1972 Rockefeller challenged Moore, the sitting governor at the time, and lost. Rockefeller was later elected governor in 1976 when Moore was unable to run because of term limits, but the two faced-off again for the governorship in 1980. This time it was Rockefeller, the incumbent at the time, who won. Moore went on to become governor again in 1984, when Rockefeller ran for Senate.