MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant told The Associated Press Monday she'll seek Democrat Jay Rockefeller's seat in the U.S. Senate, setting up the possibility of a high-profile battle with a popular seven-term congresswoman who also wants the job.
Tennant confirmed her plans to The AP hours before she was set to make the announcement at Tamarack in Beckley, though she declined to comment further until the event. Additional announcements were planned Tuesday and Wednesday in various parts of the state.
Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., announced last fall that she would run, too, well before Rockefeller announced in January that he would not seek a sixth term.
If Tennant and Capito each win their respective party primaries next spring, West Virginia could elect a woman senator for the first time.
Tennant's announcement came as no surprise. Even the National Republican Senatorial Committee anticipated her run.
Last week, it issued a statement calling her a "cookie-cutter liberal'' and declaring her positions on coal, energy, abortion, gun rights, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Affordable Care Act "far too liberal'' for West Virginia.
Monday night, state Democratic Party Chair Larry Puccio called Tennant "the people's candidate'' while attacking Capito for votes on minimum wage and coal safety regulations.
"Throughout my time, I have yet to see West Virginia voters recruit a candidate to enter a race as strongly as they have Secretary of State Natalie Tennant,'' he said in an emailed statement.
Tennant is currently serving her second, four-year term as the state's top elections official.
The former TV reporter and anchor campaigned on her efforts to bring the office's business filing and licensing services online. She also touted the fact that her office had overseen seven elections in less than three years, including special elections for governor and U.S. Senate. She ran unsuccessfully for governor in one of those elections in 2011.
Tennant has a bachelor's degree in journalism from West Virginia University, where she also served as the school's first female Mountaineer mascot. She also has a master's degree in corporate and organizational communication.
Capito would be leaving a U.S. House controlled by her party and where she has built seniority. Among her assignments, Capito chairs a House Financial Services subcommittee that oversees banks and consumer credit.
Capito was in the West Virginia House of Delegates when she first ran for Congress in 2000. Her father, Arch Moore, had been Rockefeller's chief political rival several decades ago. Moore defeated Rockefeller in the 1972 race for governor, but then lost to him in a 1980 rematch.
Rockefeller narrowly won election to the Senate in 1984, while Moore served a third term as governor but then pleaded guilty to five corruption-related felonies.
Rockefeller has served five terms, winning each one by a comfortable margin. But his retirement at age 75 puts a seat held by Democrats since 1958 in jeopardy. Capito is popular in her home state and won a seventh term in the House last fall with about 70 percent of her district's vote.
West Virginia has been growing slightly more Republican: The GOP picked up 11 seats last fall in the state Legislature, and two of the three U.S. House seats are now held by Republicans.
While Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin in voter registration, West Virginians are proven ticket-splitters who have gone for Republicans in the last several presidential elections.