On a steamy Monday afternoon in the Jay Rockefeller ballroom of the Clarion Hotel here, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant stood arm in arm with Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren. They faced an adoring crowd of more than 200, some of whom had driven five hours for the event.
“The way I see this, Citibank and Goldman Sachs and all those other guys on Wall Street, they’ve got plenty of folks in the U.S. Senate willing to work on their side,” Warren told the crowd. “We need someone one on our side willing to work for America’s families and Natalie’s that fighter.”
Across the state in Charleston, Tennant’s opponent to fill the seat of the man the ballroom was named for was also holding a special event: This one featured House Budget Committee Chairman and 2012 vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan campaigning for Tenant rival and Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
“It’s time to get West Virginia back to work, and that starts with sending Shelley to the Senate,” Ryan said. "Few states have been hit harder by President Obama’s devastating policies than West Virginia, but Shelley Moore Capito has been right there on the front lines fighting back. She has put forward solutions in the House to create jobs and to create a better West Virginia for hard working taxpayers."
The subject of these two opposing events was strikingly similar: West Virginia’s struggling middle class. But the takeaways were vastly different. Ryan blamed President Barack Obama for West Virginia’s stagnant growth. Warren tied Capito to her banker husband and accused her of being in bed with Wall Street at the expense of every day West Virginians. “Shelley Moore Capito thought it was more important to protect Wall Street than Main Street and that’s why I’m here today,” Warren said.
Both Ryan and Warren have become their respective parties' spokespeople for populist politics. Ryan has been giving speeches about poverty, while Warren just inked a best-selling book, A Fighting Chance, that focuses on the challenges the middle class faces. With West Virginia’s unemployment rate holding at 6% and per capita income at $34,477—making it the fourth-poorest state in 2012—West Virginians’ top concern remains the economy.
Thus the populist campaign messages.
Polls show Capito, who has a five-to-one money advantage over Tenant with more than $4 million in the bank, leading Tennant by 10 percentage points, according to an average of state polls done by Real Clear Politics. But Tennant is betting that Capito’s House Banking Committee voting record and elite background—she’s the daughter of a former governor—will hurt her West Virginia voters.
“I mean, campaigning with Paul Ryan says it all,” Tennant told TIME. “I couldn’t be more on the right side of West Virginians.” Tennant is careful to note in her speeches that she put herself through college working a minimum wage job and started her own small business.
Tennant has made Capito’s votes for Ryan’s controversial budgets an issue in the race. “She has voted to cut Social Security, to turn Medicare into a voucher system,” Tennant said of Capito. “This is about putting working class families first, not making it harder for them.”
American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-led Super PAC, went up with a web video Monday morning hitting Tennant for campaigning with Warren. The video paints Warren as "anti-coal" and says the campaign event shows "liberals uniting." "Natalie Tennant’s statement today that Elizabeth Warren is ‘just like West Virginians’ says all you need to know about how out of touch she is with this state," says Amy Graham, Capito's spokeswoman. "She is a supporter of President Obama, a supporter of Elizabeth Warren and she’s going to have a hard time convincing West Virginia voters she’s not associated with their extremely harmful and deeply unpopular policies."
Ryan also hit Warren for her anti-coal stances. “The design is to put coal out of business,” Ryan told an unemployed miner.
After the Shepherdstown event, reporters asked Tennant about Warren’s stance on coal, and Tennant said that while the two don't see eye-to-eye on everything, she invited Warren to West Virginia to show she could and work with anyone. Warren, for her part, avoided any talk about coal or her more liberal social stances, saying Tennant and she are united by their defense of American families.
And while coal and the Obama Administration’s new Environmental Protection Agency limits on coal-fired power plants remain a big issue in West Virginia, the economy remains the paramount issue.
“Look at this room, we are going win this race," Tennant told the standing crowd. "We are going to win this race. I believe it. I can see it. The votes are there for us.”