West Virginia - The Republicans' New Delaware

With Tuesday’s primary in Delaware delivering the Republican nomination to Christine O’Donnell, prominent political tea-leaf readers (pardon the pun) have pronounced Republican chances to take the Biden Senate seat in Delaware all but gone.

With Tuesday’s primary in Delaware delivering the Republican nomination to Christine O’Donnell, prominent political tea-leaf readers (pardon the pun) have pronounced Republican chances to take the Biden Senate seat in Delaware all but gone. With Delaware, they say, went the chances for Senate control to flip to the GOP along with, as handicappers like Charlie Cook or Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Model predicts, the House. There are, however, other Senate seats in play that can make up the difference if O’Donnell is truly a lost cause.

Several Senate seats are beyond Republicans’ efforts to wrest control from tenacious Democrats. A Republican takeover in Vermont, either of New York’s two seats, Maryland, Hawaii or Oregon remain outside the realm of possibility, although Kirsten Gillibrand, appointed to her New York seat in 2009, rarely polls above 50 percent. That leaves only Connecticut and West Virginia to make up the difference.

In Connecticut, the race between Attorney General Richard Blumenthal and WWE CEO Linda McMahon has been predictably unconventional. Neither are perfect candidates – Blumenthal famously had to apologize for misrepresenting his service during the Vietnam era as combat duty when in fact it was not, and McMahon’s company, World Wrestling Entertainment, is not viewed as a particularly statesmanlike position. In a September 14th, 2010 Quinnipiac poll, Blumenthal led McMahon by 6 points, the best McMahon has ever done. Blumenthal continually polls above 50 percent and his favorability ratings are 55/39 compared to McMahon’s 45/41. These are not good signs for Republicans looking to flip the Dodd seat. That leaves only West Virginia.

West Virginia suffers from a polling deficit, unlike races in most of the country; the only national firm polling in the Mountain State is Rasmussen Reports. In their September 8th, 2010 poll about the West Virginia Senate race between Governor Joe Manchin and businessman John Raese, the popular governor only polled 5 points ahead of Raese. Since a special election was announced in June to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd, Manchin has lost 11 points off his early lead. Furthermore, independents favored Raese over Manchin by 45 to 40 points. With a 4.5 percent margin of error, that poll puts this state in play.

So why do we not see an outpouring of Republican support and campaign funds into this state? Why is the NRSC not publicly supporting Raese? Why have Sarah Palin and Jim DeMint, the respective queen-makers in the Delaware primary, not descended on this state to capitalize on its obvious trend toward conservatism? Locally, West Virginia has a historic record of voting Democratic. For Republicans, the color of that state is an intimidating shade of union blue. However, voting Democratic does not immediately make the state liberal. 70 percent of West Virginia voters describe themselves as conservative, this despite the fact that 2 to 1 registered voters in West Virginia are Democrats.

West Virginia has a long history of voting for Democrats, although recently it has become a reliable Republican state in presidential races. West Virginia voted for every Democratic presidential candidate to come along, from Kennedy to Clinton. West Virginia voted for McGovern, Humphrey, Carter (twice) and Dukakis. Since World War II, the state has only broken that trend in 1956, 1972 and 1984 (landslide GOP years). Only in 2000 did West Virginia become a reliable Republican presidential state, voting 52 to 46 percent for George W. Bush.

Since 2000, the state has kept its Democratic tradition at the local level, voting overwhelmingly for Democratic Senators and, for the most part, House members, but shunning Democratic presidential hopefuls. In 2008, West Virginia voted 63 to 36 percent to retain Sen. Jay Rockefeller, but rejected Obama 56 to 43 percent with an almost 100,000 vote margin. Only 2nd District Representative, Shelley Moore Capito (a highly sought after prospect to run against Manchin for Byrd’s seat) represents a West Virginia congressional district as a Republican. 2008 was not an apathetic election in West Virginia – voter registration reached all time highs in April of that year. More than 60 percent of West Virginia’s then 1.18 million registered voters came out (this assertion deserves a caveat, as of September 14th, 2010, a study found that more than 72,000 West Virginia voters are deceased. Another 141,000 plus had left the state).

West Virginia is not immune to the discontent that has surged across the country this year. In the 2010 primaries to determine the nominees for House and Senate, Rep. Alan Mollohan, who had served in the House form West Virginia’s 1st District since 1983 and was directly preceded by his father, was ousted in a primary battle with state Senator Michael Oliverio.

That takes us back to the special election for Senate. The Mountain State’s governor, Joe Manchin is a member of a prominent political family and is popular in his own right. According to that latest Rasmussen poll, Manchin has a powerful 67 percent job approval rating and a stunning 70 percent favorability rating. This, however, is a knife that cuts both ways. According to that Rasmussen poll, 42 percent of voters would prefer Machnin to remain governor rather than become Senator. This could account for why Rasmussen Reports found West Virginia’s Senate race to be so close.

The Rasmussen poll’s result is not an outlier. A Charleston Daily Mail Poll conducted August 29th, 2010, found that Raese trails Manchin by just 6 points. Turnout will make all the difference in this race. During the 2010 primary vote, the national enthusiasm gap that favors Republicans was not as evident in West Virginia. In the 3rd Congressional District, where Republicans are outnumbered more than 3 to 1, only 20 percent of Republican’s came out as opposed to the 26 percent of Democrats.

President Obama’s low approval rating in this state has been the primary focus of Raese’s campaign. Gallup found that, between January and June of this year, that only 34 percent of West Virginians approve of the job he has done so far. This was well below the national average and tied with Utah for highest disapproval rating in the nation. Jeremy Jacobs outlines Raese’s path to victory, including breakdowns of media markets and vote totals that Raese has to pull and where, in the National Journal’s Hotline Blog today. By putting Manchin on the defensive, forcing the governor to take a position on the Obama Administration signature legislative accomplishments, none of which are particularly popular in West Virginia, Manchin has been “shredding his good guy image” according to the state’s Huntington News.

In 2000, “The Architect” Karl Rove told the 22-year-old, Oxford-bound political strategist Cody Johnson: “If you spend more than 30 seconds of your time thinking about West Virginia, you’ll be fired.” Fortunately for the Republicans at the time, that advice was ignored and Bush flipped West Virginia, without which Florida would have been inconsequential. It was the beginning of a historic change in the polity of the Mountain State. That trend is set to continue in 2010, if the GOP and John Raese can make it happen. All the tools are there, and if West Virginia flips, all the Sturm udn Drang and teeth gnashing over Delaware will seem quite silly in retrospect.

Noah Rothman is the online editor at C&E. Email him at nrothman@campaignsandelections.com

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