There's no clear-cut favorite in the crowded, seven-way GOP primary for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito's House seat in West Virginia, but if Alex Mooney can win the nomination, he won't be the only one claiming victory.
The Republican is running with the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, one of the most aggressively antiestablishment outside groups in the GOP universe — and one that mostly has kept to Senate races. But SCF, whose backing of anti-incumbent challengers has earned the enmity of other Republicans, endorsed candidates in a half-dozen House races this election to help put more like-minded conservatives in Congress — and create a bench of recruits for higher office in later years.
West Virginia's primary on Tuesday is the first time this year that one of those candidates will face voters.
Mooney, a former state senator and state party chairman in Maryland, has enjoyed a fundraising advantage over his Republican opponents for Capito's seat, thanks in part to SCF's and other outside groups' attention to a race that has not received much other outside scrutiny. (Capito is leaving her seat to run for the Senate.) Almost all of Mooney's disclosed fundraising has come from out of state, and he spent over $400,000 before the primary, compared with a little over a quarter-million dollars each from pharmacist Ken Reed and former George W. Bush administration official Charlotte Lane. Less than 5 percent of Mooney's itemized donations came from West Virginia.
Mooney has also attracted to the district an additional $161,000 in outside spending, not only from SCF but from groups like the Freedom Frontier Action Fund, Citizens United, and CatholicVote.org, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He was also endorsed by the Tea Party Express. SCF spent more than $63,000 supporting Mooney, with most of that going into a 60-second radio ad saying, "It's not enough to elect Republicans to Congress. We need to elect conservative Republicans."
The only outside effort on Lane's behalf, from a super PAC devoted to electing more Republican women, amounted to less than one-tenth of the pro-Mooney spending.
Like other candidates backed by SCF, Mooney has spent the race playing up his conservative credentials, criticizing Lane for her past positions on abortion and touting his support for gun rights and for homeschooling children. Campaign manager Nick Clemens, in an email, called Mooney "the only major conservative candidate" in the race. But he has had to handle claims that he's a carpetbagger looking for a congressional seat: Mooney considered running for Congress in Maryland in 2012, briefly setting up an exploratory committee.
The seven-way race is "unpredictable," Clemens said, and the Charleston Daily Mail reported it's unlikely any candidate gets more than 10,000 votes. But the low expectations belie big stakes as the Senate Conservatives Fund and other groups make an unusual bet on an open House seat.