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The Appalachian Bubble

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Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear is a Democrat in a conservative state that is currently experiencing plenty of economic hardship. He’s been tied to an unpopular Democratic president and faced millions of dollars being spent against him. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear (D) greets supporter Ron Winkler at the kick-off of a bus tour at his campaign headquarters last month in Lexington. (AP Photo/ James Crisp)

And we would be shocked if he doesn’t win reelection by double digits on Tuesday.

It’s all part of an emerging trend that The Fix likes to call the Appalachian Bubble.

As the rest of the country delivered big gains for Republicans in 2010 and the South went dark red, voters in and around the Appalachian Mountains didn’t play along.

It all began when Rep. Mark Critz (D-Pa.) won a special election in a conservative-leaning district in southwestern Pennsylvania a few months before Election Day. And by the time the 2010 election was finished, many of the Democratic survivors came from this region.

Critz and Reps. Jason Altmire (D-Pa.), Ben Chandler (D-Ky.), Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) all survived in districts that voted against President Obama in 2008, and some of them did so with relative ease.

Now, it’s true that the GOP did make some gains here, but not like it did elsewhere.

Of the nearly 50 districts that voted against Obama but elected a Democrat to Congress in 2008, three-fourths wound up going Republican in 2010. Of those that didn’t, nearly half came from this region.

Perhaps most illustrative, voters in West Virginia — the state at the core of Appalachia — sent back overwhelming Democratic majorities to the state legislature and elected Democratic governor Joe Manchin to the Senate.

Last month, West Virginia voters did it again, electing a Democrat to the final year of Manchin’s term as governor and turning aside a concerted effort from the GOP to turn the race into a referendum on Obama.

Next week, barring the unthinkable, Kentucky voters will continue the trend, by sending Beshear back for a second term by a wide margin.

Much of it, of course, has to do with Beshear himself; like Manchin, the governor of Kentucky is extremely popular in his home state, with a September poll showing his approval rating at 69 percent — about as close to a consensus as a politician can get these days.

But even if Beshear is a gifted politician and a likeable guy, there is something about the region of the country he comes from that allows him to be so popular in tough times. Voters in his state, as in West Virginia, don’t see their state spiraling out of control in the same way that voters elsewhere do — even though the circumstances are similar — and it has made him more immune to tough times.

Which is why we call it the Appalachian Bubble.

...

With Kentucky long an afterthought on our Friday Line, we turn to the 2012 races, which promise to be much more competitive than 2011.

To the line!

5. West Virginia (Democratic controlled): The question here continues to be who the GOP will run against Gov.-elect Earl Ray Tomblin (D), who won the final year of now-Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) term last month. The most likely opponents are special election nominee Bill Maloney, who gave his party a chance against Tomblin, and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. But after that, the GOP bench gets pretty thin, and state GOP Chairman Mike Stuart said recently that he won’t run. Also remember that Capito, if she does want to run statewide (and that’s a big if), could also challenge Manchin or wait and see if Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) retires in 2014. (Previous ranking: 5)

4. Washington (D): While this race has yet to really heat up, early polls show an uphill battle for Rep. Jay Inslee (D), despite the state’s Democratic tilt. Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) enjoyed a 45 percent-to-38 percent lead in a recent poll and a high favorability rating – a sign that Democratic attempts to brand him as a tool of the right have fallen flat, at least early on. As McKenna rolls out a fairly moderate, Washington state-centric agenda, Inslee needs to make himself known. (Previous ranking: 4)

3. New Hampshire (D): As expected, former state senator Maggie Hassan got in the race last week, and she enters the race as the early favorite for the Democratic nomination with Gov. John Lynch (D) retiring. On the GOP side, 2010 Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne is still the only declared candidate, but conservative activist Kevin Smith recently resigned from his job and could run, as could 2010 nominee John Stephen. Both sides are promising to paint the other’s candidates as extremists in this swing state. (Previous ranking: 3)

2. Montana (D): A Democratic Governors Association poll released recently showed state Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) leading former congressman Rick Hill (R) by four points. A few caveats, though. First, neither is very well-known, and Bullock seems to be benefiting from a slight advantage in name recognition. And second, Hill is one of many Republicans running for the seat. In fact, some Republican think state Senate Majority Leader Jeff Essmann may be their best bet. But it’s a very crowded primary without a clear favorite, and anything can happen. (Previous ranking: 2)

1. North Carolina (D): Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory (R) has been delaying his formal announcement, and why not? He can keep raising money out of the spotlight while keeping his lead in polls and not drawing any GOP challengers. It’s a win-win-win. Gov. Bev Perdue (D), meanwhile, is just struggling to keep her footing heading into what will undoubtedly be a very tough race. This has long been and remains the GOP’s best pickup opportunity. (Previous ranking: 1)

Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.

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