Five years ago, the popular new U.S. Senator Barack Obama helped out when Robert Byrd of West Virginia needed money for his Senate re-election campaign, backing a fundraising effort that generated more than $600,000 in 24 hours.
Now, President Obama is a drag on another Democrat’s effort to win the seat held by the late Byrd for more than a half-century. Governor Joe Manchin, 63, is in a tough fight with Republican businessman John Raese and is distancing himself from some of Obama’s more unpopular programs.
This week, Raese, 60, campaigned with Arizona Senator John McCain, who won West Virginia by 13 percentage points in his 2008 presidential loss to Obama. With tight Senate contests in Colorado, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Nevada and Washington, Republicans are focusing on West Virginia Nov. 2 to help win a majority of 51 votes in the Senate, which Democrats now control 59-41.
“We will be up late on election night to see who has control of the Senate; we will not be up so late unless we send John Raese” to Washington, McCain told about 250 Republicans at the American Legion hall in Charles Town on Oct. 26. “This will come down to a handful of votes.”
Byrd died June 28 at age 92 after serving as a senator since 1959. In March 2005, Obama wrote a fundraising appeal on Byrd’s behalf, issued by the MoveOn.org advocacy group.
Rated a Tossup
The race is rated a tossup by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report in Washington. An Oct. 23-24 poll by Public Policy Polling had Manchin leading by six percentage points. An Oct. 26 Rasmussen Reports poll put Manchin ahead by three percentage points, a reversal from the prior week’s poll that gave Raese a seven-point lead.
“Voters are starting to realize the difference between the two candidates” and that Raese “has ideas that aren’t in line with West Virginians,” said Nathan Drain, Democratic Party co- chairman in the Clarksburg area, citing Raese’s opposition to the minimum wage.
Manchin, who won a second term in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote, had a 69 percent approval rating among West Virginia voters in the Oct. 23-24 Public Policy poll, compared with only 31 percent for Obama.
In a television ad Manchin took aim -- literally -- at the president’s proposed cap-and-trade plan to control emissions linked to global warming. Standing in a wooded area, Manchin was shown loading a rifle and firing a bullet through a copy of the bill nailed to a tree.
“We are going to kill cap-and-trade,” Manchin told more than 100 supporters at the Stonewood Volunteer Fire Department near Clarksburg on Oct. 27. “It’s not good for this country and it’s definitely not good for West Virginia.”
Manchin sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this month over restrictions on new permits for surface coal mining, which he said will “harm West Virginia’s economy and cost us jobs.”
Raese contends Manchin would become a “rubber stamp” for Obama in Washington. The Republican, making his fourth run for the Senate, said his message “resonates right now as a strong fiscal conservative.”
“The people are starting to look at the direction of this country” and are supporting his candidacy, Raese said while campaigning in Charles Town on Oct. 26.
The Public Policy poll showed that Manchin increased his support among voters calling themselves conservatives to 24 percent, up from 17 percent in the group’s Oct. 9-10 poll.
West Virginia hasn’t elected a Republican U.S. senator since Chapman Revercomb won a special election in 1956. He lost to Byrd in 1958.
“For a Republican to win Byrd’s seat” would “send shock waves,” said Mick Staton, a one-term Republican congressman from West Virginia and chairman of the party committee in Berkeley County in the eastern panhandle.
To prevent that, “we are putting forth our biggest get-out-the-vote effort in recent history,” said Derek Scarbro, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has spent $2.7 million on television and radio ads attacking Raese, according to the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks independent campaign expenditures.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent more than $3.8 million to oppose Manchin, according to reports compiled by the Sunlight Foundation. Spending by outside groups on both sides of the campaign totals $2.4 million.
Manchin is portraying his opponent as a political extremist for his opposition to the minimum wage and advocacy of scrapping the U.S. Education Department.
“John Raese’s ideas are crazy,” says a Democratic Party television ad airing this week. It shows Raese calling for an expansion of the “Star Wars” anti-missile defense system with “1,000 laser systems in the sky.”
Without mentioning Obama at the Stonewood rally, Manchin voiced his ire about partisanship in Washington.
“I am as mad as you are about what’s going on” because members of both parties “put their politics first,” he said. “We are going to fix America by putting this country first.”
Manchin received his loudest applause when he promised to emulate Byrd’s independence and advocacy for West Virginians.
“He didn’t care who was president or what party you were from, if you were wrong for West Virginia you were wrong,” Manchin said. “That’s the footsteps I hope to follow in.”
Byrd used his positions as Senate Democratic leader and, later, as Appropriations Committee chairman to locate thousands of federal jobs in his state.
Democrats have sought to portray Raese as an inauthentic West Virginian because he has a home in Palm Beach, Florida, where his wife, Elizabeth, is registered to vote.
One ad concludes with the line that Raese’s “wife isn’t registered” in West Virginia “so she can’t vote for him. Why should we?”