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Senate primary in West Virginia pits Dems Ojeda, Swearengin

Shelley Moore Capito speaks with the Gray TV DC Bureau
Shelley Moore Capito speaks with the Gray TV DC Bureau(WHSV)
Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 3:39 PM EDT
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West Virginia's first female U.S. senator, Shelley Moore Capito, is pushing her own record as she aims for another feat that hasn't happened in more than a century.

Despite a strong shift toward the GOP in West Virginia, the state hasn't re-elected a Republican to the Senate since 1907.

Capito has two GOP challengers on Tuesday, while the Democratic primary features a wide variety of candidates.

Republicans made major gains when Capito won the 2014 Senate race, capturing all the state’s U.S. House seats for the first time since 1921. Capito became West Virginia's first Republican senator since 1959.

President Donald Trump then won 68 percent of the state vote in 2016. Capito hopes that red wave continues this year.

In an Associated Press interview, she highlighted her work on improving economic and broadband development and emphasized her position on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. Capito said she's also helped residents obtain unemployment benefits and other social services during the coronavirus pandemic.

"I think I’ve kept a very close connection to West Virginia, which is really important to people,” Capito said.

Campaign finance records show Capito has raised more than $4 million and has $3 million cash on hand, far more than all other candidates in both parties, combined.

Her GOP primary challengers are Family Policy Council of West Virginia President Allen Whitt and former craftsman Larry Butcher of Wood County. Butcher earned just 4% of the vote in the 2014 primary against Capito.

Whitt, an Alabama native, said Capito's voting record on issues such as abortion and free speech aren't conservative enough.

“She's basically a stated and known moderate,” Whitt said.

Capito, the daughter of the late three-term Republican Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr., countered that she has a strong Republican track record when it comes to approving conservative judges and voting on social issues, as well as the backing of guns rights supporters.

The Democrats include coal miner's daughter Paula Jean Swearengin, outspoken retired Army paratrooper Richard Ojeda and former South Charleston Mayor Richie Robb.

Swearengin, a progressive featured in the 2019 Netflix documentary “Knock Down the House,” received 30% of the vote in 2018 against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. This time, Swearengin has raised nearly $336,000, by far the most among Democrats in her race, and has accepted only individual donations.

"If I go to D.C., I’ll owe nobody but the people that got me there,” Swearengin said.

The fast-talking Ojeda may not have such strong financial backing, but he touts his combat medals, more than two dozen tattoos and his ability to bench-press 300-pounds.

“I'm 205 pounds of ‘get some,’” Ojeda said.

As a state senator, Ojeda became a friend to state teachers in 2018 during their strike for better pay and benefits. He also took up the cause of medical marijuana, successfully sponsoring legislation to make it legal.

But he lost a 2018 congressional race to now-U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, and then resigned his state Senate seat last year to mount a long-shot bid for president, quitting after two months.

Ojeda has been highly critical of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying the Kentucky Republican “needs a thorn in his side and nobody is better at that than me.”

For West Virginia's three House members, this likely will be the last race as an incumbent for one of them. The state has lost population for seven straight years, and analysts have projected the loss of one congressional seat after the 2020 census. First Rep. David McKinley is unopposed in his GOP primary, while 2nd District Rep. Alex Mooney faces physician Matthew Hahn and Miller faces Russell Siegel of Lewisburg in the 3rd District.

The Democrats include attorney Tom Payne and software company employee Natalie Cline in the 1st District. Energy analyst Cathy Kunkel is unopposed in the 2nd District, and the 3rd District candidates are Huntington bus service CEO Paul Davis, labor union executive Jeff Lewis, Hillary Turner of Huntington and doctoral student Lacy Watson.

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