In it, but not of it. TPM DC

This GOP Candidate Is Leading The Party Away From Obamacare Hysteria

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AP Photo / Cliff Owen

If the GOP is ever going to take a more restrained approach on Obamacare during the 2014 campaigns -- which is still up for debate -- Capito points the way as she seeks to replace retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).

Back in January, she had kind words for the law's Medicaid expansion, which could cover as many as 116,000 low-income West Virginia residents in the next decade after the state accepted it.

"Coverage is great and having more people covered is excellent," she said.

Capito then told the Wall Street Journal last week that repealing Obamacare is unlikely and she'll instead work to make it "less painful and more manageable."

So what affords Capito the leeway to espouse conservative heresy as she tries to turn a blue Senate seat red, especially when House GOP leaders are quickly chastened by the base if they say the same thing?

TPM talked to West Virginia political strategists who said the explanation is complicated. But the essence of it is this: Capito doesn't need Obamacare, and the law has helped a lot of people in her state. Why rail against that new reality when she can instead focus on other issues?

Among Republican candidates this year, Capito seems to be one of the first to learn that lesson.

A few things help her cause, though, particularly West Virginia's continued rightward trend and President Obama's general unpopularity, irrespective of Obamacare. Capito is also the daughter of a former Republican governor who is remembered fondly despite a federal criminal conviction and she represents a congressional district that spans several of the state's major media markets.

She's already a known quantity who doesn't need to brush up her conservative bonafides by bashing health care reform, strategists told TPM.

"She's got significant credibility among Republicans," Mark Blankenship, a Republican strategist, said. "She gives her measured, thought-out approaches, and I think most of them are willing to give her the benefit of the doubt."

Even if Capito wanted to simply campaign against Obamacare, her state's experience under the law would likely complicate things. On top of thousands who have signed up for Medicaid, another 10,000-plus had signed up for private coverage by the end of February -- and that doesn't include the March boon that sent the law blowing past 8 million enrollees nationwide as the enrollment period closed.

So Capito appears to have made the political calculation not to rely on Obamacare, instead drawing contrast between herself and the White House on an issue more central to her state: Coal. Or, as her campaign puts it, Obama's "War on Coal."

"She doesn't have to use Obamacare as a wedge issue when she has a naturally built-in one with coal," Curtis Wilkerson, a Democratic strategist, told TPM. "She is a very astute individual. She is extremely focused on everything she says."

"She has the ability to know what plays in West Virginia and what doesn't."

It is only April, however, so Capito's campaign could change as November nears, especially if her Democratic opponent, West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, runs a heavily negative campaign -- as some think she might have to if she's to overcome Capito's apparent advantage. The RealClearPolitics poll aggregation shows Capito with an imposing lead. The Cook Political Report rates the race as Lean Republican.

In that scenario, Capito would likely look to paint Tennant as beholden to the president, and Obamacare could factor into that attack. Her campaign has also been collecting what look like Obamacare horror stories. Maybe just in case. She could always talk up her multiple repeal votes as a member of the House if she wants to draw a contrast.

But so far, she isn't focused on it, Blankenship and Wilkerson agreed. Instead, Capito has been a peak at what a Republican campaign occupied with something other than Obamacare could be.

"She tends to be a little bit more practical," Blankenship said. "She takes a little bit more of a moderated approach."