WASHINGTON (AP) — Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and West Virginia Democrat Natalie Tennant grabbed early primary leads on Tuesday as they headed toward a historic U.S. Senate showdown in November that will give the state its first female senator.
In early results, Capito, a seven-term congresswoman and daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, had 87 percent of the vote while Tennant, the state's secretary of state, garnered 71 percent in their respective primaries. Both were expected to win handily as they sought to replace Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who is retiring after 30 years.
Capito would be the heavy favorite to secure the seat for the GOP in a state that has become increasingly Republican. If elected, she would be the first Republican senator from West Virginia since 1959.
Voters in Nebraska also were deciding their lineups for the November elections in the latest round of spring primaries. The fall midterms will determine control of Congress for the last two years of President Barack Obama's second term, with Republicans expected to hold the House and cautiously optimistic about winning control of the Senate.
The tea party, outside conservative groups and two of the right's heroes — Sarah Palin and Sen. Ted Cruz — have rallied behind Ben Sasse, the president of Midland University. For months, Sasse has been locked in an increasingly negative race with former State Treasurer Shane Osborn, who has the backing of the Washington establishment and allies of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
In recent weeks, Sid Dinsdale, the president of Pinnacle Bank, sought to capitalize on the Sasse-Osborn fight and produce a surprise outcome similar to Republican Sen. Deb Fischer's come-from-behind win in 2012.
Sasse has the backing of Club for Growth, the Tea Party Patriots, the Senate Conservatives Fund and FreedomWorks in his bid to replace Republican Sen. Mike Johanns, who is retiring after a single six-year term.
Sasse has focused on his conservative credentials, opposition to abortion, support for gun rights and goal of repealing and replacing the health care law.
In one 30-second ad, Sasse's two young daughters, Alex and Corrie, talk about how much their dad opposes the Affordable Care Act. "He wants to destroy it," says one daughter. "He despises it," says the other.
Outside groups and the candidates have spent millions on the race in which the GOP winner is widely expected to prevail in November in a state where Obama won just 38 percent of the vote in 2012. The National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's campaign operation, has remained neutral.
Trial lawyer Dave Domina faces Larry Marvin in the Democratic primary.
The tea party has struggled this year as candidates have lost to establishment favorites in Texas, North Carolina and Ohio, and Nebraska stands as the insurgent movement's best remaining shot. Looking ahead to upcoming primaries, the tea party's chances to upset incumbents have been diminishing in Kentucky, Kansas, Idaho and Mississippi.
The Republican establishment has a love-hate relationship with the tea party. It welcomed the movement's energy that propelled the GOP to control of the House in the 2010 elections, but it blames tea partyers for less-than-viable general election candidates in 2010 and 2012 Senate races in Indiana, Colorado, Nevada and Delaware.
Republicans in the capital remain convinced they could have won control of the Senate if only their establishment candidates had won more primaries, and some in the party have been determined to defeat the movement's candidates this election.
Nebraska also has a fierce race for governor involving two leading candidates — Attorney General Jon Bruning against Omaha businessman Pete Ricketts. Term limits prevented Republican Gov. Dave Heineman from running again.
In West Virginia, Democratic names like Byrd and Rockefeller dominated politics for decades, but since 2000, the state has voted Republican in presidential elections. The transformation is widely expected to continue this fall as Republicans capitalize on voter antipathy toward Obama, who lost all of the state's 55 counties in 2012.
Capito's planned departure from the House created a messy GOP primary in her 2nd Congressional District that stretches across the state. Among the top Republicans are Charlotte Lane, a former commissioner of the U.S. International Trade Commission; Alex Mooney, the former chairman of the Maryland GOP who moved to the state; and pharmacist Ken Reed.
In his appeal to voters, Mooney's campaign said he moved to West Virginia to "live in freedom, and he'll fight Obama to preserve it."
Reed plays up his West Virginia roots and talks in his ad about "how bad Obama and the EPA are hurting us."
Democrats are hoping that their likely nominee, former state party chairman Nick Casey, can snatch a GOP seat.
One of the most endangered House Democrats is 19-term Rep. Nick Rahall, who is likely to face Democrat-turned-Republican Evan Jenkins in the fall.