By Peter Savodnik - 09/29/05 12:00 AM EDT
While Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) keeps political observers guessing about whether she will challenge Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) next year, one thing is certain: Former West Virginia University basketball coach Gale Catlett is running for Congress.
Whether Catlett sets his sights on the House or Senate depends on Capito, said Republican Andy McKenzie, the state Senate’s minority whip.
If Capito passes on the Senate race, McKenzie explained, Catlett would run against Byrd, as many in political circles and the press have speculated. But, McKenzie said: “If Shelley runs for the U.S. Senate, Gale will run for her seat” in the 2nd District.
Catlett could help assuage Republican fears that if Capito exits the House to challenge Byrd the party would have a tough time holding on to her seat.
Capito won her first term with 48 percent of the vote, her second with 60 percent after spending more than $2.5 million, and her third, in 2004, with 58 percent.
Although Catlett is a political novice and not a full-time resident of the district — he has homes in Morgantown, in the 1st, and Hedgesville, in the 2nd — he enjoys high name identification, Republicans said.
Catlett did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The all-important question is what Capito will do. For now, no one, including the congresswoman’s father, former Gov. Arch Moore Jr. (R), seems to know whether she will challenge the eighth-term Byrd, 87, wait for for the senator to retire, or challenge Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) in 2008.
“We’re a very close family, and … we have confidence in our daughter, and we listen,” Moore said, adding that he “rarely” discusses the Senate race with Capito. “Whatever our daughter does in that regard, of course, we’re going to be with her full barrel.”
The former governor declined to say whether he would like to see Capito challenge Byrd. But he did outline a game plan for Republicans, suggesting the GOP tackle the state’s senior senator much the way it did former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who lost his reelection bid last year to John Thune (R).
While Byrd routinely portrays himself as a conservative Democrat when he’s home, he aligns himself with his party’s more liberal leadership in Washington, Moore said.
“That proved to be quite fatal to Daschle,” he said.
Moore’s comments echoed those of many Republicans in Washington, including officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), who have made much of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org’s backing of Byrd.
Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin said 40,000 West Virginians, including fire fighters, police officers and coal workers, belong to MoveOn.org.
“Senator Byrd doesn’t ask West Virginians whether they’re a Democrat or Republican or an independent or what their philosophical background is,” Gavin said. “He says, ‘I’m going to represent you to the best of my ability no matter who you are.’”
Some Republicans say Byrd’s support for Supreme Court chief-justice nominee John Roberts — contrasting with Daschle’s opposition to many of President Bush’s judicial nominees — had inoculated the Democrat, to some extent, from GOP attacks.
Still others acknowledge that Byrd, known in Republican circles as the “king of pork,” has taken care of West Virginians.
“Senator Byrd has truly, especially in the northern panhandle, represented our region very well and has brought home tremendous projects and tremendous tax dollars that I know that people appreciate and don’t take for granted,” said state Rep. Gil White (R).
Moore said he expects Capito to make her Senate plans known in October. Republicans in Washington had hoped that Byrd’s announcement Tuesday that he would seek an unprecedented ninth term would force Capito to issue a statement.
“Clearly, if she’s going to run for the House or the Senate, she’s got to make her intentions known so the rest of the party can get organized,” said McKenzie, the state senator.