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Sen. Jay Rockefeller to retire. Can Republicans seize opportunity?

Early polls showed five-term Democrat Jay Rockefeller trailing GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. While his withdrawal opens the door to a Republican gain, Capito could be vulnerable on the right.

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When Capito announced her run, another group with a track record of weighing in heavily in Republican primaries – the fiscally conservative Club for Growth – also announced its opposition, saying Capito looked more like failed Republican candidates from the 2010 cycle like Rep. Rick Berg of North Dakota or Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana than conservative all-stars like Sen. Mike Lee (R) of Utah.

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“Her candidacy will undoubtedly be cheered by the GOP establishment, and dire warnings will be issued against any ‘divisive’ primary challenges, lest other candidates hurt Capito’s chances of winning,” said Chris Chocola, the Club’s president. “The problem is that Congresswoman Capito’s record looks a whole lot like the establishment candidates who lost this year. Congresswoman Capito has a long record of support of bailouts, pork, and bigger government.... That’s not the formula for GOP success in US Senate races.”

Republicans need to win six Democrat-held seats to retake the Senate, a possibility given both the absolute number of Democratic Senators up for reelection (20) and the deeply red states many of them represent (West Virginia, Arkansas, Alaska, and Louisiana, to name a few).

But Republican primary battles like the one brewing in West Virginia have produced not only conservative all-stars (think Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida) over the last two election cycles, but some epic flops (failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell of “I’m not a witch” fame) in general elections.

On the Democratic side, Democratic Senate Campaign Committee Chairman Michael Bennet of Colorado pointed out that Democrats still hold a two-to-one advantage in voter registration in the Mountain State.

That could bode well for long-time Rep. Nick Rahall (D), the dean of the West Virginia delegation, who reportedly expressed interest in the seat, or other potential candidates including Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Carte Goodwin, a Byrd aide who served a temporary term in the Senate after Senator Byrd’s death in 2010.

“While we will greatly miss [Rockefeller] in our caucus, I am confident we can elect an independent-minded Democrat to his seat next November,” Senator Bennet said in a statement. “I know there are a number of leaders there who will consider taking this next step to serve their state."

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