McGeehan in the thick of the race

West Virginia voters get to replace Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller in 2014. He’s retiring after 30 years in Washington.

The Republican and Democratic primaries are on May 13; the general election is on Nov. 4. Both primaries contain a handful of candidates for Senate. The filing deadline is next Saturday.

The voting booth in West Virginia will be crowded this year, thanks to two elephants. One is Barack Obama, the other is Old King Coal.

And then we have the media. News coverage of campaigns, including “polls,” help identify issues/non-issues and can have a profound impact on name recognition, campaign fund-raising and, of course, the outcome.

Look for media tilts toward Republican Shelley Moore Capito, who wants to move up to the Senate after 14 years in the House, and Democrat Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s exceedingly ambitious secretary of state.

What’s going to happen in May and November?

In the Democratic primary, Tennant is likely to stroll to victory. Yes, there was that unpleasantness about backing Obama in 2008 and 2012, but now she professes unhappiness with Obama’s “war on coal.” In the primary, that will be enough to get her over the Obama hump.

She also has Rockefeller’s blessing, which is no small thing. That could give her access to some of his donors and pieces of his campaign apparatus.

Last but not least, Tennant has a strong media background and knows how to connect with reporters, editors and voters.

The GOP primary is going to be trickier, thanks to tensions between Establishment and Tea Party wings of the party.

Capito is Establishment, and the Tea Party faction is represented by Patrick “Pat” McGeehan, Sunday school teacher, former military intelligence officer, former member of the state House of Delegates.

On a liberal-to-conservative scale, Capito seems to be a 6 or so. McGeehan is 9-plus. One pundit notes that Capito has “a big ace up her sleeve” – Democrats won’t be able to portray her as a hard-line conservative. Indeed.

Capito and McGeehan part company on a number of issues. Federal spending is one.

Last month, Capito followed the lead of GOP leaders and voted for the Ryan-Murray bipartisan federal spending deal. She called it “a responsible step forward, one that I hope will lay the groundwork for future timely and balanced budgets.”

McGeehan strongly disagrees. The deal “continues the Beltway spending binge that we cannot afford.”

The two also differ in style.

Capito last week gave a good tongue lashing to the EPA in a press release about agency rules impacting coal-fired power plants. McGeehan has sharper elbows. The EPA “is out of control and unconstitutional,” and he wants it defunded and abolished.

Who’s going to win in the GOP primary? If name recognition, fawning news coverage and slick TV ads are decisive, it will be Capito. If stands on the issues matter most, McGeehan could win.

What about November? If it’s Capito vs. Tennant, Tennant wins. If it’s McGeehan vs. Tennant, the Sunday school teacher could be off to Washington.

Here’s the calculus:

Tennant will run a strong campaign, and she’ll follow the path taken by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin (moderate Joe) last year. Think Tennant wasn’t paying attention to Manchin’s campaign? Think again.

If Capito wins the primary, Tea Party Repubicans and other Conservatives will be inclined to stay home in November. They’re not fond of Capito – too much inside-the-Beltway baseball – and they’ll think, “Capito/Tennant, Tennant/Capito. What’s the difference? Why bother?” Tennant wins.

If McGeehan wins the primary, Establishment Republicans, not fond of McGeehan but even less fond of Tennant, will join Tea Party Republicans and other Conservatives in voting for him in November. McGeehan wins. Maybe.

Would the national GOP back McGeehan if he wins in the primary? He doesn’t miss a beat in responding. “If they want another Republican senator, they should.”

That’s a pretty good answer.