Since 2011, West Virginia has lost several giants from its congressional delegation — and more than 100 years of Capitol Hill experience.
Rep. Allan Mollohan (D), who served for three decades, left in controversy in 2011. Sen. Robert Byrd (D), who served five decades, died in 2010. And Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D), who served for three decades, retired last year.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R), now the state’s junior senator, is the longest-serving member of the delegation — having first joined the House in 2001 — and is helping give West Virginia back some of its lost clout.
Capito lobbied Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for key committee slots. As a result, there is once again a West Virginian on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which Byrd once chaired.
"I wanted to make sure that my opportunities here in the Senate to have a more powerful voice were actually going to impact more directly my state," Capito said during a brief interview.
She also landed spots on the Energy and Natural Resources, the Environment and Public Works, and the Rules and Administration committees.
The appointments are key for a lawmaker from a state where energy helps drive the political discussion and which relies significantly on federal funding.
"I think West Virginia is a small state, so I think my placement on committees give us great ability to weigh in," Capito said. "I think being in the majority helps us, as well."
Capito also nabbed a key subcommittee chairmanship, heading EPW’s Clean Air and Nuclear Safety subpanel. From there, she will help lead the assault on the Obama administration’s environmental agenda.
"Certainly in the energy area, both coal and natural gas are huge in our state," Capito said. "I’m well positioned for that."
West Virginia Republican Rep. David McKinley said Capito’s presence as the delegation’s senior member is already making a difference in how they interact.
"What she’s helped to do, already we’ve had more than one delegation meeting. First four years, we had one total. Four years," said McKinley. "She’s helping orchestrate that."
Cementing a dynasty
Capito’s history with Congress stretches back several decades. She was still a little girl when her father, Arch Moore, won a seat to represent West Virginia in the House. He kept it until she was a teenager.
Moore, a Republican, then served two separate stints as governor — one between 1969 and 1977, and another between 1985 and 1989. Democrats at the time had a strong grip on Mountain State politics.
Meanwhile, Capito earned degrees at Duke University and the University of Virginia. She represented West Virginia as Cherry Blossom Princess in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.
Capito began cementing a West Virginia political dynasty when she followed in her father’s footsteps, winning a West Virginia House of Delegates seat in the mid-1990s. She arrived on Capitol Hill in 2001.
She was the first Republican woman elected to Congress from West Virginia, representing its middle region, and became the state’s first female senator this year after winning more than 60 percent of the vote.
Capito’s Senate election came amid a GOP wave in West Virginia, which unseated long-time Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall and flipped the state Legislature away from Democrats for the first time in decades.
Still, analysts say she has long appealed to Republicans, Democrats and independents. She won all 55 West Virginia counties, often exceeding the margins of other Republicans on the ballot.
She’s conservative enough to receive relatively high scores from groups like the American Conservative Union. At the same time, in 2013, tea party groups grumbled at her Senate candidacy.
"Capito, I would estimate, is the most popular political figure in West Virginia right now," Mark Blankenship, head of strategic research for the Herald Group LLC and a former Republican political aide in West Virginia, said during a recent interview.
He said Capito and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin are West Virginia’s top political forces. "Those two are the juggernauts in the state," Blankenship said.
Her photogenic family is an asset. She’s married to Charles Capito, a financial adviser. They have three children — Charles, Moore and Shelley.
Manchin has drawn attention on Capitol Hill because his centrist, pro-coal views often put him at odds with President Obama and other members of his party’s leadership.
But Manchin may not stay in D.C. too much longer. He has publicly been trying to decide whether he would have more clout staying in the Senate as a member of the minority party or running for governor.
Neil Berch, a West Virginia University political science professor, said during a recent interview that he expects Capito to stay in the Senate for a long time.
In the House, Capito was a prominent member of the Financial Services Committee, often fighting for the interests of community banks. Critics, however, said she was too close to Wall Street.
In the Senate, her priorities, beyond fighting Obama administration regulations, include boosting spending on carbon capture and sequestration research. She introduced an amendment to that effect to the GOP’s budget resolution currently on the floor.
She has also touted expanding broadband Internet access and securing a long-term transportation bill, even opposing a Keystone XL pipeline rider that could jeopardize the effort.
"Our plate is full and expectations are high, as they should be. We need to roll up our sleeves and deliver," said Capito during her maiden speech to the Senate earlier this month. "I am optimistic that we can find solutions that move our country forward."