CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rep. Shelley Capito has watched West Virginia slowly shift toward her Republican Party, as Dixie and other rural regions did previously. Now she thinks she can defeat Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller for the U.S. Senate.
We hope her calculation is wrong, because Rockefeller is a treasure for the Mountain State. He has spent his lifetime working diligently for humane values that bolster average families and the middle class. He has been a bulwark for West Virginia jobs and industries. For example, Putnam County's Toyota engine plant was attained greatly through his efforts.
Rockefeller has international stature. He's respected as a statesman -- and the respect goes beyond partisan politics. Over the decades, many West Virginia Republicans have stood with him.
In contrast, Capito is a party-liner who consistently backs GOP support of the elite 1 percent and military hawks. Unlike West Virginia's other Republican in Congress, she voted for the notorious Ryan budget that would have damaged Medicare and other "safety net" programs. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said he couldn't back such a harmful plan -- but Capito didn't hesitate.
We don't know why West Virginia, with nearly 2-to-1 Democratic registration, gradually has become a GOP "red state" in national balloting. Mountain conservatives chose the Republican ticket in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Two of the state's three House seats in Congress have gone to the GOP. A Republican Washington lobbyist took the attorney general post this year. The GOP gained 11 seats in the House of Delegates.
Clearly, this state has changed from its true-blue Democratic days. Is the transition locked in so permanently that Rockefeller's Senate seat now is within reach of a GOP challenger? We hope not.
So far, the clash between Capito and Rockefeller seems to hinge on who's most loyal to the coal industry. Although the incumbent senior senator is a longtime "friend of coal," he also urges West Virginia to "face reality" -- to acknowledge that the Central Appalachian coal basin is partly exhausted, now underpriced by cheap Wyoming coal and cheap Marcellus gas. Rockefeller thinks West Virginia should prepare intelligently for the economic change that is occurring.
In contrast, Capito joins other Republicans -- and some West Virginia Democrats -- in trying to blame federal pollution controls for coal's downturn. That's mostly a red herring.
America's political boundaries are fairly distinct. Democratic "blue" states generally are urban, well-educated, affluent, culturally diverse, socially tolerant. Republican "red" states tend to be rural, less-educated and less tolerant. The GOP mantra of "God, guns and gays" resonates in those places.
It will be sad if West Virginia has moved so far into the red camp that a commendable leader like Rockefeller is in peril. We hope he runs again -- and we hope enough of West Virginia's historic Democratic values remain to win him another term.