By Gary Robertson
RICHMOND, Va., Sept 17 (Reuters) - West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said on Tuesday she will run for U.S. Senate next year, taking on seven-term Republican Representative Shelley Moore Capito in seeking to succeed retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller.
Neither candidate is expected to face a challenge from within her party, meaning that either could emerge as West Virginia's first woman U.S. Senator.
Tennant, a Democrat, said in an interview that if elected she would challenge the Obama administration's perceived opposition to coal. Coal mining is an important element of the West Virginia economy, accounting for about 30,000 jobs.
"I'm showing the rest of the country what West Virginia is all about," Tennant said. "We can help this nation become energy independent through natural gas and coal resources and wind and water."
In mid-August, well before she announced her candidacy, Tennant ran slightly behind Capito in the non-partisan West Virginia Poll. In this heavily Democratic state, 45 percent of the respondents said they would vote for Republican Capito to replace Rockefeller, while 40 percent said they would choose Tennant. Fifteen percent were not sure who they would vote for.
The telephone survey of 400 voting-age West Virginia residents was conducted in mid-August by R.L. Repass and Partners for the Charleston Daily Mail newspaper. The poll had a margin of error of 4.9 percent.
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said Tennant would try to impose President Barack Obama's policies on struggling West Virginia families, calling her too liberal for the state.
He said that Tennant had "championed the war on coal and defended the EPA (the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)."
Rockefeller, who plans to retire in 2014 after five terms in the Senate, endorsed Tennant, a former television reporter now in her second term as secretary of state.
"Republicans have offered West Virginia no solutions to the problems we face, and instead take action against us again and again - voting to block mine safety reforms in the wake of the UBB tragedy, pushing to privatize Medicare and Social Security, and protecting their political friends on Wall Street at the expense of West Virginians," Rockefeller said.
An underground explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010 killed 29 miners.
In 2012, all 55 West Virginia counties voted against Obama for president, even though registered Democrats have a 2-1 margin over Republicans. (Editing by Scott Malone and Jackie Frank)