Thursday, October 14, 2010

West Virginia U.S. Senate Race

Race of the Day

West Virginia U.S. Senate

October 14, 2010
19 Days Until Election Day

Status: Democrat Open
2008 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Tossup (R)

West Virignia is a classic example of a culturally conservative state where Democrats have continued to dominate electorally. This year, the Mountaineer State is facing an unexpected special election to complete the final two years of the latest term that legendary Democrat Robert Byrd, who had first been elected to the Senate in 1958. The Senate President Pro-Tem and longest serving Member of Congress in history, died earlier this year at age 92.

While Byrd's death may not have come as a huge shock, there was much speculation over what would happen next. The state's extremely popular Democrat Governor Joe Manchin had the authority to appoint a replacement, but there were questions as to whether a special election would or should be held in 2010 to elect someone to finish the term. Manchin has had his eye on the Senate seat for quite some time, but it was unlikely he would have the political gall to appoint himself. He likely gave though to if it would be more beneficial for him to call a special election and be a candidate this year or to wait until 2012. Ultimately, he decided to appoint a caretaker Senator in July, his young former counsel, Carte Goodwin, and also came out in favor of a special election where he would be a candidate.

With Manchin running, it looked as if Republicans would be out of luck in trying to pick up a surprise victory in the state. Republicans had been looking to the party's one major officeholder, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, who had been talked about as a statewide contender for quite some time, and who was facing an easy reelection campaign this year. There was intrigue over whether or not the special election law, written by the legislature, would allow her to seek both federal offices simultaneously, or if she would have to give up her House campaign, in order to gamble on the Senate. Capito would eventually decide that running a short campaign against the popular Manchin was not what she wanted to do in 2010, although many believed she might be in a better position to do so in 2012, in addition to possibly running for Governor that year.

With Capito out of the picture, the GOP looked for alternatives and the one that emerged was not seen as A team material. John Raese is a wealthy businessman and former State GOP Chairman. He had also run unsuccessfully once for Governor and twice for U.S. Senate. Back in 1984, he lost a fairly close open seat race for Senate to Democrat Jay Rockefeller, and most recently, lost to Byrd in 2006, taking just over a third of the vote.

Initially, few gave Raese much of a chance in the race. The national mood favored Republicans and Barack Obama and national Democrats were definitely unpopular in West Virginia, but Manchin was considered a conservative Democrat, who had extremely high job approval numbers. If Republicans were to have a chance, they would need to nationalize the election against Democrats in general and the potential for Manchin going to Washington D.C. and turning into a reliable vote for the party leadership or the Obama Administration. Republicans have run ads trying to tie the Governor to Obama on things such as the health care legislation, which Manchin had come out in favor of at one point. Manchin, who has been endorsed by the National Rifle Association, is fighting back, claiming independence from Democrats on important issues and trying to portray Raese as an out of touch wealthy businessman.

With the national political wind aiding him, Raese had made up considerable ground against Manchin in a very short period of time. There is no doubt that Manchin may be the more personally popular of the two candidates, but the state's voters are indicating that they are very concerned about sending a Democrat to the U.S. Senate. The national parties have gotten involved spending heavily on the race and political figures such as former President Bill Clinton have come into the state to campaign for the candidate of their choice. Had he known he would be facing such a tough battle this year, Manchin may very well have chosen to wait until 2012 and not call a special election. A big dynamic at play, which has been seen in past Senate contests featuring similar circumstances, is that the voters may prefer to keep a popular Governor at home in their current job, while sending someone different to Washington, to represent the party that the voters are more closely identifying with on federal issues. The NRSC ran a high profile ad featuring actors expressing those sentiments.

The polls are now indicating a very tight race. The Democrat affiliated Public Policy Polling puts Manchin ahead by three points. A CNN poll shows the two men deadlocked at 44 percent each. A Fox News poll from earlier this month had Raese ahead by six while a Rasmussen Reports poll from this week puts the Republican ahead by three.

To use a cliche, anything can happen, and while this once would have been considered to be a major upset, my hunch as of today is that the anti-Democrat sentiment in West Virginia will be enough to give a very close win to Raese and the Byrd seat will go the way of the Kennedy seat in Massachusetts, with a new Republican Senator. Raese will perhaps have to immediately begin a tough campaign for reelection and maybe Manchin will try again, thinking he will have a better chance in 2012. The voters meanwhile will probably be satisfied enough to keep Manchin as Governor for two more years, while sending an anti-Obama vote to Capitol Hill.

Raese campaign link:

2010 U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 10 D, 26 R
Predicted U.S. Senate Balance of Power thus far: 50 D, 49 R