Wednesday, October 11, 2006

West Virginia U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

October 11, 2006
27 Days Until Election Day

West Virginia U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Likely Democrat

The failure on behalf of West Virginia Republicans to mount much of an effective campaign against Democrat incumbent Senator Robert C. Byrd, has to be considered one of the bigger disappointments of the election cycle for the GOP.

Byrd, who will turn 89 years old next month, and is the longest serving member in the history of the U.S. Senate, is all but certain to be reelected this year to continue a Congressional career that began with the dawning of the Eisenhower Administration, but his physical health is said to be extremely poor and he has not been able to take part in much in the way of campaign activities this year. One would have to wonder just how much better Republicans could have done if they would have been willing to be a lot more assertive in opposing the revered legend of the Mountain State.

The biography and eccentricities of Byrd are pretty well known to anybody who follows Congress. The Senator began his adult life as a proud member of the Ku Klux Klan who rose to a leadership position in that organization. While he has long since been disassociated with the hate group and has expressed regret for his membership, conservatives tend to take any opportunity to mention the fact that Byrd was a prominent Dixiecrat Senator during the Civil Rights Movement, who also has the distinction to be the only Senator in history to vote against confirming both African-American Supreme Court nominees this country has ever seen. In another notable incident, Byrd, whose Klan past earned him the nickname “Sheets” on Capitol Hill from then House Speaker Tip O’Neil, who served with him, when the West Virginian was Senate Majority Leader, twice used the n word in a nationally televised 2001 interview to describe negative feelings towards some white people. Republicans pounced on those words and claimed that a double standard existed for a prominent Democrat to be able to get away with that sort of racist language while Byrd’s defenders, said that his comments should be judged with the perspective of the era in which Byrd grew up and cited his voting record in favor of civil rights over the past few decades. When the Senate honored Byrd in recent years, Chris Dodd of Connecticut claimed that Byrd would have been “right for America” at any time in our country’s history, including the Civil War. The fact that Dodd escaped from those comments unscathed very likely had Trent Lott of Mississippi shaking his head.

Byrd has reached such an iconic status in West Virginia due in large part to his history of tireless advocacy on behalf of the historically impoverished state and he is likely the most effective pork barrel appropriator on behalf of his state in Congressional history. He has himself in the past made comments in which he has declared that West Virginians trust in him on the same level as the Almighty. The Senator is also known for his love of Senate debate and he has always taken a very active role in it through filibusters and other lengthy speeches in which Byrd typically references the constitution, the Bible, and Roman history. He is also the world’s preeminent expert on the history of the U.S. Senate and has written books on the legislative body he clearly reveres.

West Virginia is a state that is known for typically being very pro-Democrat, albeit also culturally conservative. In recent years though, Republicans have managed to elect one of their own to the Congress and have carried West Virginia’s Electoral College votes in the Presidential election, and by a solid margin at that in 2004. In 2005, some buzz began that Byrd could be vulnerable to a challenge from the right type of Republican and indeed a media poll that year showed that he was locked in a dead heat in a potential Senate contest against GOP Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito. Suddenly, all sorts of people started speculating that the elderly Byrd might have lost touch with the people of his state and that he would have by far the strongest possible challenge he has ever faced, if he even decided to run for reelection. However, Capito declined to make the race, focusing instead on keeping her House district, which could have been more vulnerable to a Democrat pickup in her absence, and a couple other Republicans, whose names were bandied about, due to the fact that they had won statewide office or were a legendary basketball coach in the state also decided to not take on Byrd.

When Byrd did announce he would seek another term, it looked like his long shot Republican opponent would be a young Iraq War vet and attorney who had two years earlier lost a race for Attorney General. However, national Republicans worked to recruit a more credible candidate who would have the ability to self-fund the race in part and businessman John Raese, a former state GOP Chairman, and who ran a credible campaign in defeat for the U.S. Senate 22 years earlier, in addition to also seeking the Governorship before losing a primary in 1988, entered the race to the satisfaction of some Republican loyalists. Raese’s name recognition and campaign war chest allowed him to win a reasonably solid victory in the GOP primary but he entered the general election as a steep underdog to Byrd.

Few would have expected though that Raese would have had a very difficult time making any headway at all against a Senator who was becoming increasingly embraced by those in the left-wing in a state like West Virginia. Despite the fact that Byrd often votes alongside conservatives on social issues, he became somewhat of a folk hero to liberals in the past few years for his unrelenting attacks against the Bush Administration on issues such as the Iraq War and domestic anti-terror measures. When many believed he would be vulnerable, Democrats began a quick campaign to raise money for the long-time incumbent claiming that he was “under attack.” One of the groups that raised money for Byrd’s campaign was the very liberal, a fact itself that some believed could cost him some support back home in West Virginia. In spite of all this though, Raese’s campaign has picked up virtually no momentum whatsoever since the primary. A September poll from Rasmussen Reports puts Byrd’s lead at over 30 points, although some other rare polls on this race show a somewhat closer race, with Byrd under 60 percent of the vote. This may indeed turn out to be his toughest campaign for reelection ever, but that would not necessarily be saying much to begin with.

Not many people doubt that Byrd’s mind is as sharp as it has always been, but the past few years have shown a visible toll taken on his physical well-being and the sad fact of the matter is that not many people expect him to be able to finish a new six year term. The Senator who has always expressed a love of debate and of his own voice has obviously avoided any kind of joint appearance with his opponent and has relied on television ads and surrogates to campaign in this election year. Byrd, who would be in line to once again become President Pro Tempore of the U.S. Senate, and third in the line of Presidential succession, is also mourning the recent death of his beloved wife. If Byrd were to pass away or be otherwise unable to perform the duties of his office and have to resign in the near future, a vacancy would be filled by West Virginia’s Democrat Governor, who is very popular and expected to probably win reelection in 2008. There are many Mountain State Democrats who will consider themselves available to serve if a vacancy were to suddenly open up and Republicans as well might mount more of a vigorous effort to win a Senate seat in a state that has not had an open one since 1984.

Raese, the Republican challenger has attempted to draw out some key differences between himself and Byrd, has expressed a desire for a new direction in the state, and theoretically has had the statue and resources to make the case, but overall, he has approached the race with kid gloves, perhaps believing an overly aggressive campaign that was explicitly negative towards Byrd or questioned his fitness to effectively serve the state would backfire and earn him the ire of many people. While it might not have won Raese any popularity points, that sort of campaign could have conceivably succeeded in raising serious questions about Byrd and would have maybe decreased his eventual margin of victory. Still though, it would have been very tough to actually defeat Byrd in West Virginia, although a candidate like Capito, with a history of electoral success, might have been able to make a more credible case than a middle-aged millionaire like Raese.

Many have used some dark humor over the course of this campaign to say that the only thing that might be able to stop Byrd before Election Day would be the Grim Reaper. It will be interesting to see if Byrd manages to win by as large of a margin as some are inclined to predict, but it is quite clear that West Virginia voters are perfectly content with reelecting their senior Senator for as long as he keeps running, and allowing him the opportunity to pass away while representing the state he loves in the U.S. Senate, that he loves.

Raese campaign link:

2006 Senate races predicted thus far: 18 D, 13 R
Post-election Senate balance of power predicted thus far: 45 D, 53 R