MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- As she seeks a seventh term, Republican congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito will have to get past a Democrat who believes voters in West Virginia's 2nd District want someone to challenge the coal industry and reject the notion that the Environmental Protection Agency is a job-killing, rogue arm of government.
Her Democratic challenger, Howard Swint, is making his third bid for the seat Capito has held for 12 years. Swint is offering himself as someone who is "unowned" by any special interest because he rejects political action committee contributions.
"That makes me almost uniquely qualified to represent the only interest we should have," Swint says, "and that's the people of West Virginia."
Capito, meanwhile, argues she's earned the right to continue her work in Washington and vows to focus on creating jobs and crafting a national energy policy that includes a role for coal.
"There are a lot of people out there who are really, really concerned and troubled," she said, "and I want to go back and try to be part of the solution."
Despite Capito's enduring popularity -- she won by more than a 2-1 margin in 2010 against her Democratic opponent -- the vastly outspent Swint sees an opening in the odd-shaped district, which stretches across the middle of the state from the Ohio River on the west to easternmost Jefferson County on the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers. Swint said Capito's record reflects a betrayal of West Virginians' core values, including equal pay for equal work and the protection of social safety-net programs such as Social Security and Medicare.
Capito voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which requires employers to prove differences in pay are related to qualifications, not gender, and gives workers more time to sue employers for discrimination. President Barack Obama has touted his signing of the Democratic-backed measure into law in early 2009.
Swint saw it was a way "to help level the playing field" and address continuing, proven inequities.
"I don't for the life of me understand how a congresswoman would vote against the working women of this country," he said.
Capito, a working mother and grandmother, said equal pay and women's rights in the work place "are probably as important to me as anything." She voted no, she said, because the law was "a trial lawyer's boon that would open up years and years and years of litigation possibilities."
"The way it was presented to me," she said, "it was excessive."
Capito also defended her support of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's budget proposal, saying systemic changes and cuts are needed if the nation is going to tackle a $16 trillion national debt in a meaningful way.
"Does he have the exact right answer? Probably not," she said of Ryan, now the GOP vice presidential nominee. But discussion about overhauling Social Security is a starting point. "I think America realizes that if we don't make changes for the younger generations, it's not going to be there," she said.
Swint calls that position hypocritical.
"She voted for two unfunded wars and two massive Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, yet presumes to present herself as a fiscal conservative," he charges. "And now she goes before her constituents and says we need to balance the budget for programs that benefit seniors and children and women and infants and the disabled and the poor.
"We're going to balance the budget on the poor and the most vulnerable," he said.
The candidates also have starkly different views on the role of the EPA, an agency that affects farmers and coal operators, as well as people who just want clean air and water.
Swint said vilifying the EPA, as Capito has done, is an attempt to discredit the federal government.
"The air is cleaner today in the Kanawha Valley and the Eastern Panhandle than at any time in our lives -- as is the water," Swint said, "and it's because of federal regulatory action. I like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act."
Capito, he said, is challenging the EPA's enforcement of the Clean Water Act solely to support coal companies and mountaintop removal mining.
"That's what the coal industry wants, and she's been a shill," he charges. "The EPA is not perfect, but I would never want to go back to the days before the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act."
Capito, who has alleged the EPA has a "radical, anti-coal agenda," joined other House Republicans in September to pass the "Stop the War on Coal Act," an effort to prevent the EPA from restricting greenhouse gases. It would also quash stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars and give states control over disposal of harmful coal byproducts.