A party problem in W.Va. contest

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010

CLARKSBURG, W.VA. - In any other year, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III would be a lock to win his race for Senate. He's as popular as almost any politician in America, with an approval rating around 70 percent. Even his opponents concede that he's done a good job.

If that weren't enough, his opponent, John Raese, is a millionaire heir who faces questions about just how committed he is to West Virginia. His wife is registered to vote in Palm Beach, Fla., where they own a home, and his daughters go to school there.

His policies might be problematic as well - in one of the poorest states in the nation, Raese advocates for doing away with the federal minimum wage. And he has a favorite joke that may not exactly resonate in these difficult times: "I made my money the old-fashioned way - I inherited it."

In any other year - say, 1984, 1988 or 2006, when Raese lost races for statewide office - he would not be much of an obstacle for someone like Manchin.

But this year Manchin has one problem he can't fix. "There's not much wrong with him," said John Jenks, attending a Raese event on Wednesday in this central West Virginia town. "It's just that he's a Democrat."

That little fact has turned the race to replace Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D) from a coronation of Manchin into the one of the most competitive races in the country, with both parties running nearly constant campaign commercials to win an election that could determine which party controls the Senate.

Raese, who won only 34 percent of the vote when he ran against Byrd in 2006, has surged in the past month with a simple message: The governor will be a "rubber stamp" for Obama.

Manchin has responded by trying to show voters just how unlike a Democrat he can be. He brags about his endorsement from the National Rifle Association. He has sued the Obama administration over environmental policy and in a campaign commercial fires a rifle at a copy of the "cap and trade" emissions legislation that congressional Democrats have advocated. He promises, if elected, to "take on Washington and this administration."

Manchin, who last year said he was "totally behind health-care reform," has also distanced himself from the law that eventually passed. In an interview, he said he would support dumping two requirements that are the centerpieces of the legislation: that individuals must purchase insurance and that businesses must cover their employees.

"It's not a bill I would have voted for after it was all finished up," Manchin said.

Manchin, who won reelection in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote, is caught between two powerful political trends. Like many of its neighbors, West Virginia has shifted strongly to the right in the past decade. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in voter registration, but they tend to be conservative and favor the GOP in presidential elections - both Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and President Obama lost the state by 13 points.

And along with the general GOP surge across the country, Manchin has to face what Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) called the "Obama factor."

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