Shelley Moore Capito just doesn't sound like most other Republicans running for Senate.
As she filed paperwork Thursday in her bid to become the first Republican senator from West Virginia since the Eisenhower administration, the six-term congresswoman made plain that she won't be catering to the tea party. She's tacking toward the political middle.
In an interview with National Journal, Capito didn't cast herself as conservative—she didn't so much as utter the word—but instead said she is a "deal-maker" and "realist" in the mold of other moderate Republican women in the upper chamber. Among those she named as models was Sen. Lisa Murkowski—a woman who lost her party's nomination to a tea-party challenger in 2010, and had to wage a write-in campaign to keep her seat.
Capito even spoke about some of the benefits of Obamacare—a heresy for most Republicans. The Medicaid expansion has provided insurance for tens of thousands of the poorest West Virginians, and Capito said "coverage is great and having more people covered is excellent," though she remains concerned about its long-term fiscal impact.
Capito has the freedom to speak out because she has no serious opponent for the GOP nomination. While conservative activists, most notably the Club for Growth, made some early noise about challenging her from the right, she's now on a glide path through the primary.
"We can't keep getting in circular firing squads," Capito said Thursday. "I think that's useless."
Her lack of a primary foe could pay off, as Capito can start moving to the political center right away in a state that most believe is a must-win if Republicans are to retake control of the Senate in 2014.
Capito's likely Democratic opponent, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, is set to file her paperwork on Friday. And Democrats are determined not to let Capito define herself as anything but a creature of Washington and the unpopular House Republican majority. Justin Barasky, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said that Capito has "consistently supported the reckless and irresponsible Washington special interest agenda" that led to last fall's shutdown and the suspension of long-term unemployment benefits this month.
Capito said she admired women GOP senators who bridged the partisan divide in 2013, citing Murkowski and New Hampshire's Kelly Ayotte in particular.
"The women in the Senate and how they're brokering agreements and reaching across party lines... as a fellow woman, I look at it from afar and I think I know where they are," Capito said. "They've just reached the breaking point, like you do with your family when your kids are fighting—when you sort of look at them and say, 'That's enough. We're stopping this right now. We're going to find a solution.' I think that's a real credit to them in the Senate, and I'd like to be a part of that."
Capito's most notable comments came on the health law, which she referred to as the "Affordable Care Act" even as most Republicans refuse to call it anything but Obamacare.
"I'm in favor of repealing and replacing, but the realist in me says that's not going to happen," Capito said. "The president's not going to sign a repeal measure." So she spoke about trying to find ways to keep the upwards of 80,000 West Virginia residents who now have access to Medicaid on the health insurance rolls.
"Hopefully, when I get to the Senate and we begin to make changes in the Affordable Care Act, that we will be able to find a way through tax credits and subsidies to keep folks in that insured area. And then, as they move up and we grow the economy—because of better policies we're putting forward—once they move up they're able to move out of that category, maybe in a more gradual fashion than one day you're on, one day you're off," she said.
Capito added that spiraling Medicaid costs for states were a major concern. "This is an issue of—while coverage is great and having more people covered is excellent—however, the state doesn't have to begin to pay for this," she said. "Keep in mind that our state, for the first time ever, is dipping into their rainy-day fund to meet the obligations of Medicaid as it exists today—without the expansion."
Anything short of a relentless focus on repeal is sure to anger the political Right. But Capito, without a serious primary opponent, sounds at peace with that. "We're a party that should and does have a much broader tent than maybe some facets of our party would find acceptable," she said.
This article appears in the January 24, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.