Tuesday, October 09, 2018

West Virginia U.S. Senate- Race of the Day

28 Days Until Election Day

West Virginia U.S. Senate

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2016 Presidential Result: Red State (South)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

Many eyes will be on the Mountaineer State early on during Election Night. If Republicans look poised to flip this seat, it is a sign that any hope that Democrats have of taking over the Senate might be dashed. For as long as West Virginia has been a traditional bastion of Democrat strength, it is now very clear that if "Trump Country" exists, it's capital may be West Virginia. In 2016, the unorthodox Republican nominee won the state by 42 points, his best showing anywhere in the country. This is of course a factor as Democrat Joe Manchin fights for his second full term in the U.S. Senate.

Manchin has never lost a general election in West Virginia going all the way back to 1982. The one exception was a defeat in a crowded Democrat primary for Governor in 1996 to a more liberal Governor. He captured the Governorship eight years later though and in his second term, won a special election to go to Washington in 2010 when he took over the Senate seat that had belonged to legendary Democrat Robert C. Byrd. In Washington, Manchin has been easily the most conservative Democrat in the Senate, especially on issues like guns, abortion, and the coal industry, but across the board he has also probably been more to the left of any remaining Senate Republican, including his friend, Maine's Susan Collins. The West Virginia Democrat has voted to keep Obamacare and has expressed skepticism on Republican tax plans.

Even as Manchin had been a popular Governor, Republicans had hoped to put up a fight against him during a very anti-Democrat midterm of 2010. Manchin won by slightly more than 10 points though and two years later, beat the same opponent by 14 points, even as Barack Obama was going down in a landslide to Mitt Romney in the state. In that campaign, Manchin famously ran a television ad in which he took a gun and shot up the Cap and Trade bill, a measure favored by national Democrats and environmentalists.

Manchin has long resisted rumors that he may one day become a Republican, as the recently elected Democrat Governor of the state had in switching parties.. He continues to call himself a "West Virginia Democrat." He refused to endorse the reelection campaign of Obama in 2012 but did offer a 2016 endorsement of Hillary Clinton, citing the friendship he had with the Clintons going back to their days in Arkansas. He might have had some regret though after Secretary Clinton's poorly worded statement about putting coal miners out of work became such a national story.

While Manchin tried to establish a relationship with Trump, and was listed as a possible Cabinet nominee, the new White House believed they could make defeating Manchin in 2018 a priority. Clearly, no other Democrat in the state but Manchin would even have a chance of defending the seat. The May primary saw Manchin face a challenge from environmental activist Paula Jean Swearingen who ran to the incumbent's left, and she received 30 percent of the vote against him, showing that many Democrats in West Virginia had soured on Manchin's political positioning.

The Republican primary though that day received far more attention. It had been a pretty brutal three-way affair, although six candidates appeared on the ballot. The fourth place finisher, with nearly 10 percent was Army veteran and businessman Tom Willis, who may have received many votes simply because of distaste with the other three candidates.

National Republicans were looking to Congressman Evan Jenkins as their strongest potential nominee. Having served for years as a Democrat state legislator, Jenkins switched parties to run as a conservative Republican for Congress in 2014 and easily beat a very senior incumbent Democrat. Despite being the perceived choice of the NRSC, Jenkins would not have the field to himself however. Some on the right moved to back the candidacy of state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. When he first won that office in 2012, he was the first Republican to hold it since 1933.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, was the candidacy of Don Blankenship, a former energy company CEO, who was still on probation after serving a year in prison for his role in violating safety standards at a coal mine in which 29 coal miners were killed in 2010. Blankenship maintained his innocence and blamed the Obama Administration for prosecuting him for political reasons. For months though, it looked like Blankenship's campaign was gaining steam in West Virginia, as he modeled his style after that of Donald Trump, although the men are very different stylistically. He also received much criticism for running television ads attacking the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (who is U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao), as a "China person." With McConnell's political arm spending money trying to prevent Blankenship from gaining traction in West Virginia, the candidate continued to attack McConnell and claimed he had gotten rich off of his wife's family's foreign cocaine dealings.

Clearly, a Blankenship nomination would have been a disaster for Republicans. Donald Trump Jr, and eventually his father, got involved, mindful of a recently wasted Senate seat in Alabama, and both said that Blankenship could not win and Republicans must choose between Jenkins and Morrisey instead. The convicted criminal turned candidate shrugged it off and said he was "more Trump than Trump" and attacked the establishment for trying to silence him. This all had some effect though, as Blankeship's poll numbers started to decrease and he finished in third place at 20 percent, well behind the eventual winner. With this result, the stolid Senate Majority Leader trolled Blankenship and other critics by posting a photograph of himself as a drug lord. It quickly became a meme and the legend of "Cocaine Mitch" was born. For a time, McConnell was said to answer his phone using that moniker.

After this, Blankenship spent months trying to still run in the general election as the new nominee of the Constitution Party. His presence on the ballot would be the last thing Republicans need in trying to get enough support to oust Manchin. While Blankenship is able to run in November as a write-in candidate, election entities and courts in the state have said he cannot appear on the ballot as a third party candidate, citing primary "sore loser" laws.

There still was the matter of Jenkins vs. Morrisey and the fights between them were an original cause of much of the support Blankenship was believed to have had. Both of the elected Republican candidates attacked each other as insufficiently conservative and especially not supportive enough of Donald Trump. The two men practically bent over backwards to kiss the backside of the sitting President.

In terms of chutzpah, the once favored Jenkins probably took it further than his less telegenic opponent. Jenkins, who served for years as a Democrat and was said to have been supportive of Hillary Clinton for President and later Barack Obama in the 2008 election cycle, was critical of Morrisey for not having endorsed Trump in the 2016 West Virginia primary, as the Congressman had. The Attorney General, who very openly backed Trump in the general election, was scared in debates to admit that he was indeed originally backing Ted Cruz in the primaries over Trump. It was quite a ludicrous charge though from Jenkins, considering his past party affiliation (something else he had in common with Trump.) Of course, Morrisey also used Jenkins' past support of Clinton and Obama against him and criticized him for being part of the "Washington D.C. swamp" while serving in the U.S. House GOP majority.

In contrast to the native West Virginian Jenkins, Morrisey had been born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey. He even bombed as a 2000 Republican Congressional primary candidate there before moving to West Virginia in 2006. Jenkins went after him over the roots issue as well as accusing Morrisey and wife for being lobbyists for "Big Pharma" and tried to tie it to the state's opioid addition problems. The Attorney General's campaign took the step of sending a cease and desist letter to his primary opponent.

The primary yielded at least somewhat of a surprise at the top, as voting fell along geographic lines to some extent (with Blankenship hurting Jenkins) but the lines of attack from the Congressman also likely backfired. Morrisey won 35-29.  Jenkins conceded and offered his support to Morrisey. Recently, he has resigned his seat in Congress to become a Justice on the West Virginia Supreme Court, filling a vacancy, after the entire sitting court had been impeached.

Republicans were relieved to have a nominee after this tough primary, but somewhat circumspect that Morrisey, despite his past statewide victories, would be in a strong position to challenge Manchin. Most polls have shown the incumbent with a somewhat solid lead and easily with a very large cash advantage. Clearly, party labels may be secondary to many voters in the state, who have long been comfortable with Manchin. As Election Day approaches though and with national polarization so present in these midterms, there seems to be a bit of a movement towards Morrisey in at least making the race closer.

A big portion of this was related to the bitter fight to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Manchin was a top swing vote on the matter as it went down to the wire and he refused to signal which way he would vote until the end. Previously, Manchin was one of a small handful of Democrats who voted to confirm Neil Gorsuch to the Court, but the fight over Kavanuagh was considered even more crucial by Democrats. Only when it was clear that Kavanaugh would be confirmed with enough Republican votes, did Manchin announce he would support the nominee, being the only Democrat to do so. Critics on the right suggested that Manchin was disingenuous in waiting as long as he did and was only given permission by his party leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, after his vote no longer mattered. They believed that if one more Republican had been on the no side, making Manchin the actual deciding vote, he would have ultimately voted no. Many on the left have decided that Manchin committed an unforgivable sin with this vote and some may withhold support for him in his state now. Others, including those who have cast the vote for Kavanaugh as "pro-rape" have allowed themselves to give permission to Manchin to vote the way he did, in order to try to save his seat with the political realities of West Virginia at play.

If Manchin had voted no on Kavanaugh, Trump would have gotten even more involved in his efforts to sway the race to Morrisey in the state that seemingly likes him the most, and Republican anger in general (even among people like me who despise Trump but feel that Kavanaugh was immensely treated unfairly) might have made it impossible for Manchin to win.

Nonetheless, he voted yes at the end on Kavanaugh, and whatever his true motivations were, that will probably cause him to survive reelection against a credible, but less than stellar opponent.

U.S. Senate races predicted thus far: 
23 D (12 Safe, 5 Likely, 3 Leans, 3 Tossup)
10 R (3 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans, 5 Tossup)

Total with predictions thus far:
46 D (23 holdovers, 12 Safe, 5 Likely, 3 Leans, 3 Tossup)
52 R (42 holdovers, 3 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans, 5 Tossup)


At 1:14 PM, Blogger Steve Boudreaux said...

Bold Prediction: I expect 2018 to be the LAST political campaign for Manchin.


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