CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Paula Jean Swearengin is using her stances on progressive issues, her popularity from a role in a Netflix movie and the hard realities of a life spent in the southern West Virginia coalfields to try to snap Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito’s two-decade streak in political office.
Capito has leaned hard on her record leading up to the Nov. 3 election as she tries to become the first West Virginia Republican re-elected to the U.S. Senate in more than a century. And she hopes to ride the overwhelming popularity of President Donald Trump in the state from the 2016 election.
Standing in her way is Swearengin, a Democrat who is backed by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and supports proposals for a government-run health care system known as “Medicare for All” and the “Green New Deal” environmental reforms that would combat climate change.
Swearengin said too many people in West Virginia are poor, sick and fighting for better health care. And she lays some of the blame on Capito.
“If she had been doing her job, I wouldn’t be running against her,” Swearengin said. “How can we expect her to make good decisions for us when she doesn’t even understand how we live?”
As someone “who has lived the struggles of a working class West Virginian, I will never forget where I came from,” she said. “Because I’m still here.”
Swearengin was featured in the 2019 movie “Knock Down The House” that followed her and three other progressive female candidates running grassroots campaigns for the 2018 elections. Most notably among them was New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the only one of the four to win and the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
Despite losing to popular incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin in the U.S. Senate primary that year in her first statewide race, Swearengin received 30% of the vote.
While Swearengin said the film earned her national endorsements, “we’ve had to still work really hard to reach the people in the hills and hollows.”
Capito said Swearengin’s platform is “taking us way too far afield from what West Virginians believe. And that is, we believe in giving us the freedom to create our own opportunities, give us help when we need it, but kind of open a space for us for opportunity. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Capito has touted her work on securing federal funding for opioid-related treatment in a state that by far leads the nation in the rate of drug overdose deaths. She also cited efforts to improve the economy, expand internet broadband access, build better roads and help residents and small businesses during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think I’ve been a steady hand at the seat,” Capito said.
The candidates disagree on how to diversify West Virginia’s economy following a heavy loss of jobs in the coal industry.
Citing an announcement this month that a certification center will be built in West Virginia for a futuristic transportation project, Capito would like to see a continued emphasis on higher education science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs to boost jobs.
Swearengin promotes the growth of the hemp and cannabis industries and said the state’s network of dams would support the use of hydroelectric power.
While Swearengin believes that coal will not bounce back, Capito would like to see more use of a technology called carbon capture for coal-fired power plants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I’m not ready to give up on coal,” Capito said. “I think there’s a place for coal but it has to be coupled with this research and development that we see moving forward.”
Capito also has become passionate for improving health outcomes, including lowering the price of prescription drugs, helping victims of childhood cancers, supporting families of Alzheimer’s patients and research toward finding a cure for the degenerative disease.
Both of Capito’s parents died from Alzheimer’s. Her father is the late three-term Republican Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. Her family roots in state politics go back a century, and Capito is looking to extend a career that began in the state House of Delegates in 1996.
With a $5.2 million war chest, Capito outraised Swearengin by a nearly 4-to-1 margin. Swearengin accepted only individual campaign donations.
Republicans made major gains when Capito won the 2014 Senate race, capturing all the state’s U.S. House seats for the first time since 1921. Capito is West Virginia’s first female U.S. senator and the first Republican senator since 1959.