Like the races in Wisconsin and Washington, the Senate race in West Virginia has changed the thrust of the Democratic strategy this year. Instead of playing offense in states like New Hampshire, Ohio and Missouri, they are now forced to play defense in these states. And this is a "special election" to fill out the term of deceased Senator Robert Byrd and the winner will be seated not in January, but during the lameduck Senate session in later November.
This race is a little goofy and defies explanation unless you consider one thing- Barack Obama. In 2008, McCain won the state with 57% of the vote so Obama was never particularly popular in the state to start with. That same year, they elected Joe Manchin with 70% of the vote and he is now the Democratic candidate for the Senate seat. Yet, Manchin finds himself in serious trouble against Republican challenger John Raese. Making the situation even more perplexing is the fact that Manchin has the support of organized labor, the business-friendly Chamber of Commerce, and the conservative NRA. So why does he trail in the polls? Why is this race even close?
The only answer is the policies and programs of Barack Obama. Since his inauguaration, Obama's popularity in the state has only deteriorated. Rease has skillfully and consistently played off that Presidential disapproval to his advantage. For example, as Governor, Manchin has pushed for legislation to decrease the use of coal by utility companies by 25% in an effort to decrease carbon emissions. One could tell where a Senator Manchin would fall on the issue of cap-and-trade in a state suffering from high unemployment whose top industries are coal and timber. Now, his commercials take "dead aim" at cap-and-trade. And Manchin can call himself a fiscal conservative until the cows come home, but as governor, he was an early and vocal proponent of Obamacare. Would Machin be a rubber stamp for the Obama liberal agenda? Odds are he would and Raese needs to stick to that strategy.
However, recently the race has tightened somewhat. And it behooves me why the Republican Party, through a campaign operative, would be so stupid to describe West Virginians as "hicks" in a casting call for a political advertisement. Of course, the Manchin campaign has seized upon this statement (not uttered by Raese, by the way) to portray Raese as not very sensitive of the portrayal of West Virginians in general. It also illustrates the desperation of the Democratic Party nationally and in the state where this was the best they could do to attack Raese. Should the fine citizens of West Virginia fall for this and put Manchin in the Senate, then perhaps they deserve the "hick" characterization. This election is not about the use of a word; it is about whether Manchin would be a rubber stamp for an unpopular President's policies. If Raese ignores the "hick" controversy and stays on message, then he reveals Manchin as either an Obama patsy or a hypocrite. And better a hick than a hypocrite....or Obama patsy.
In the 1st Congressional District, Allan Mollohan lost the Democratic primary to Mike Oliverio amidst ethical questions surrounding the incumbent Mollohan. Mollohan was originally elected in 1983 to succeed his father and thus the Mollohan monopoly on this seat comes to an end. This district lies in the northern part of the state along the Ohio and Pennsylvania borders- classic conservative territory. Hence, in order to win, Democrats must be sufficiently conservative and Oliverio may fit that bill. As usual, the Democrats will get the bulk of their votes from the urban center of Wheeling and the college town of Morgantown while Republicans will draw votes in the rural areas. The problem for Republican David McKinley is that he has to pull decent votes in these urban areas to win while Oliverio need only pull the status quo for Democrats in the rural areas. Thus, the demographic advantage belongs to Oliverio. Republicans originally thought this seat was attainable due to the ouster of Mollohan, but that was more a function of the Democratic Party and the ethics charges. It had little to do with ousting the incumbent party. Electing a conservative Democrat from this district, a prerequisite for victory, is a result Republicans can live with in 2010. Of course, if Oliverio fails to live up to his conservative credentials, that can be an issue in 2012.
The 2nd District is represented by Republican Shelly Capito. This is a narrow strip running from the Ohio River in the west to the eastern boundary of the state. It is jokingly referred to a the district 300 miles by 20 miles. Capito is considered a moderate Republican. Like being a conservative Democrat from the 1st, moderate Republican in the 2nd guarantees electoral success. This district is schizophrenic by nature. The eastern counties share very little culturally or economically with the central and western parts of the district which run through the heart of Appalachia. To unseat Capito, one would have to overwhelmingly win the eastern part and that requires advertisement in the expensive Washington DC television market. Because of the narrow nature of the district in the east, the transmissions bleed into the other two districts and advertisements would be wasted on an uninterested market. Even then, there is no guarantee a Democrat would do well in Charleston and points west.
In the 3rd district, Republicans may have erroneously believed incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall could be unseated. This is the southern part of the state where coal rules and where the timber industry does not. And Rahall is considered a moderate to liberal Congressman with a populist streak at times. The belief that seat was attainable was based on the alleged controversy involving Rahall writing a letter to a local judge on behalf of a relative over a motor vehicle violation on Congressional stationery. Rahall has represented this district since 1977 despite it being rated a Republican district on the Cook PVI. Given the propensity of West Virginia voters to return incumbents with regularity, it is doubtful a piece of paper will prevent a Rahall victory in the Third. In fact, this favoritism towards incumbents works in the favor of Capito also in the second District.
A few final thoughts. First, West Virginia is not expected to gain or lose in the Census. The boundaries of the First District should see little change since losses in the rural areas offset gains in the urban areas. Population moves in the 1st are intra-, not inter-district. Therefore, the redrawing of any districts would affect the Second possibly being expanded somewhat into the Third thus weakening the Democratic stranglehold in the Third District come 2014.
Second, West Virginia is the heart of Appalachia and there has always been a distrust of the national government dating back decades. Obama has done nothing to improve that perception. If the definition of "hick" is a healthy distrust of Obama's perception of the role of the Federal government, then more states should be proud to call themselves "hicks."
Finally, although no change is expected in the House delegation make-up by party affiliation, it is difficult to see how Raese can lose in the current political environment. Given the disapproval of Obama in the state, assuming Raese ignores the "hick" non-controversy and continues to tap into that disapproval of Obama and portraying Manchin as Obama's possible rubber stamp vote, Raese should prevail. Put another way, only the Republican Party can snatch defeat from the jaws of certain victory in West Virginia's Senate race in 2010.