Tennant Not a Game Changer Yet for West Virginia Democrats

by Nathan L. Gonzales September 30, 2013 · 9:51 AM EDT

A few weeks ago, Democrats didn’t even have a warm body in the West Virginia Senate race. So getting Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to run for the Senate was quite a catch.

But even though Tennant is a credible statewide elected official, she starts as a significant underdog in the open-seat contest.

Convincing her to run must have been quite a challenge. After coming up short in her gubernatorial bid in 2011, Tennant had her sights set on running for governor again in 2015. Like Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, Tennant must have believed that switching course was her best next move.

There were some nuggets of information that may have encouraged Tennant to make the jump.

Before Tennant’s announcement, an Aug. 15-22 poll conducted by R.L. Repass and Partners for the Charleston Daily Mail showed her trailing Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito narrowly 45 percent to 40 percent. And Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III’s ability to win 60 percent in 2012 while President Barack Obama received 36 percent was also probably an encouragement.

But that understates her challenge.

On paper, Tennant looks like an appealing candidate. The 45-year-old Democrat grew up on a farm in Marion County in northern West Virginia and also graduated from West Virginia University, where she was the first woman to be the school’s Mountaineer mascot.

She leveraged her broadcast journalism degree into a decade of anchoring news for WBOY in Clarksburg and WCHS in Charleston, and co-anchored at times with her husband, Erik Wells. The couple owns Wells Media Group, a Charleston-based video production and media training company. Wells ran for Congress in 2004 and lost to Capito, 58 percent to 42 percent, but two years later he was elected to the state Senate. He was mentioned as a potential candidate for Capito’s open congressional seat in 2014, but he decided not to run.

At the same time that Wells was running for Congress the first time, Tennant ran for Secretary of State but lost in the Democratic primary to an aging incumbent Ken Hechler (who had held the post for 16 years previously). In 2008, when the position opened up again, Tennant ran, defeated a couple state legislators for the nomination and won the general election. She was re-elected in 2012 with 62 percent.

Tennant was supposed to be Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s stiffest competition in the 2011 gubernatorial election but finished a disappointing and distant third (garnering 17 percent). She had some natural name identification from her television days and her office but had difficulty raising money (even with EMILY’s List support) and lacked a natural base of support.

For the 2014 race, a Democratic primary won’t be a problem, since it took Democrats nine months to find one candidate, let alone two or three.

Tennant is now the fourth current or former secretary of state to announce her run for the U.S. Senate this cycle. Already running for Senate seats next year are Grimes in Kentucky and two Republicans who previously held the position, Karen Handel of Georgia and Terri Lynn Land of Michigan.

All of them will be trying to buck a historical trend working against them. My colleague Kyle Trygstad laid out their challenge in a recent and thorough Roll Call piece:

“The U.S. Senate Historical Office does not maintain a list of former secretaries of state who have served in the Senate. But according to data compiled from the National Association of Secretaries of State and other sources, CQ Roll Call identified just 10 senators since 1904 who ever held that position.

Of those 10 — seven Democrats and three Republicans — just three were elected to the Senate as a sitting secretary of state. That last happened in 1996, when Democrat Max Cleland was elected in Georgia after more than a decade as the Peach State’s secretary of state. The other seven were either elected governor or to the House before winning a Senate seat.

Current senators who served as secretary of state include Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Dean Heller, R-Nev., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.”

That macro-effect says nothing about the micro-challenge Tennant faces running in the Mountaineer State.

Tennant will have to run strongly ahead of President Barack Obama and won’t start with the same independent profile that Manchin had cultivated. Tennant also starts in a financial hole against Capito, who had nearly $2.9 million in the bank on June 30. And the strong primary challenge to Capito from her right flank hasn’t materialized yet.

A more recent, September 19-22, automated survey by the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Capito ahead of Tennant 50 percent to 36 percent and found the Republican with good favorability numbers. That’s probably closer to where the race starts.

In the absence of a candidate, we moved our rating of the West Virginia’s Senate race to Lean Republican. There is no reason to change the rating immediately unless Democrats can prove they have changed the dynamic of the race.