WASHINGTON (AP) — That didn't take long.
The fissures within the Republican Party that some say cost the GOP control of the Senate have resurfaced just three weeks after the election. This time conservatives are targeting a popular veteran congresswoman from a storied West Virginia political family making a bid for Democrat Jay Rockefeller's Senate seat in 2014.
Within an hour of Shelley Moore Capito's announcement of her candidacy, the influential and conservative Club for Growth branded her as the "establishment candidate" whose record in Congress of supporting prominent bailouts has led to bigger government. Capito just won her seventh term to Congress, securing about 70 percent of her district's vote. Her father, former Gov. Arch Moore, for years was the chief political rival of the man she hopes to replace in the Senate.
The new head of the Senate's GOP campaign arm, Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, dismissed the criticism from the right — "I don't see this as damaging to her cause" — but it's far from inconsequential in the Republicans' bid to retake the Senate.
Moran hasn't officially taken over as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee yet, but he already finds himself defending a potential nominee who's widely popular in her state while trying to avoid alienating influential players on the party's right flank.
Downplaying the impact of the Club for Growth's criticism of Capito, Moran said Tuesday his committee hasn't made a decision on how heavily involved it will be in West Virginia's Republican Senate primary two years from now.
"Shelley Moore Capito is a known quantity in West Virginia," he said. "Her voting record is acceptable to the majority of West Virginians in her district for a long period of time. I don't see this as damaging to her cause."
Rockefeller, 75, has not said whether he'll seek a sixth term in the Senate, but Capito has the name recognition and fundraising ability to mount an effective campaign against an incumbent.
The Club for Growth wasted no time listing what it believes are her numerous faults. They likened her to candidates such as Rick Berg of North Dakota and Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana, saying that while they were supposedly the most electable of the Republican candidates, they lost Senate races in Republican-leaning states.
"Her candidacy will undoubtedly be cheered by the GOP establishment, and dire warnings will be issued against any 'divisive' primary challenges, lest other candidates hurt Capito's chances of winning," said Club for Growth President Chris Chocola. "The problem is that Congresswoman Capito's record looks a whole lot like the establishment candidates who lost this year."
But many of the Club for Growth's candidates in recent elections also have stumbled badly. Richard Mourdock lost in Indiana after bouncing veteran Sen. Richard Lugar in the primary. In the 2010 elections, the organization threw its considerable financial backing behind Sharron Angle in Nevada and Ken Buck in Colorado, both losers to vulnerable Democratic incumbents.
Moran said the criticism of Capito from the Club for Growth was not unexpected.
"This is going to be decided not by the NRSC and not by the Club for Growth; it's going to be decided by the people of West Virginia," he said.
In the last election cycle, Democratic leaders in Washington didn't mind playing favorites during the primaries, heavily recruiting candidates they thought had the best chance of winning, while shunning some they did not see as formidable. GOP leaders, in contrast, sat back as their potential nominees fought it out.
Moran said figuring out the NRSC's role in the coming primaries will take a couple of months, and said his organization will play a role in some states.
"It's a state-by-state issue," he said.
Democratic officials, meanwhile, are enjoying the sideshow of a potential GOP split already in the works.
"Their argument is correct that the handpicked Republican establishment candidates did just as poorly as the more tea-party candidates," said Matt Canter, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "It's hard to argue with them in that respect."
Canter said the establishment candidates stumbled in part because of their efforts to appeal to tea party supporters and strong anti-government organizations such as the Club for Growth. He said an outsider might find it easy to defeat Capito, because GOP primaries in West Virginia typically do not attract a lot of voters.
"It would be very easy for a right-wing candidate to get the votes needed to win," Canter said.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said he would have preferred for the Club for Growth to have waited to see if a viable alternative to Capito emerges before attacking her. With Mitt Romney easily winning the state, Republicans figure to have a strong shot of winning the Senate seat in 2014.
"She's the best that state has to offer at this point," Bonjean said. "There's not a deep bench of Republican candidates who can immediately step into the fold, who can take on Sen. Rockefeller. Going after a female Republican right now when we lost the women's vote is not necessarily the wisest political move either."
Chocola said supporting fiscal conservatives such as Jeff Flake in Arizona and Ted Cruz in Texas, both Senate winners this month, is the best way back for the GOP.
"They are the future of the Republican Party," he said.