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A look at West Virginia

When all eyes turned to the presidential recount in Florida during the protracted 2000 contest, West Virginia’s pivotal role in the election of George W. Bush was somewhat lost. [IMGCAP(1)]

While almost any state would have put then-Vice President Al Gore over the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House, his inability to win the Mountain State’s five electoral votes was especially telling.

In 70 years, the solidly Democratic state had voted to elect a Republican president only three times — and all were

incumbents headed for landslide victories.

In 2000, Bush’s 52 percent to 46 percent victory made West Virginia the only state he won that his father, President George H.W. Bush, had not. And, his coattails helped Rep. Shelley Moore Capito become the first Republican in 20 years from the state to be elected to the House.

“Our five electoral votes put him over the top,” boasted state Republican Party Chairman Kris Warner. “There wouldn’t have been a recount in Florida if it weren’t for” Bush winning West Virginia.

State Republicans continued to make inroads in the Democratic dominance in 2002, putting 11 new members in the state Legislature while retaining all of their GOP incumbents. Warner believes the results are only a foreshadowing of what is to come.

“I believe we’re in the midst of a historic shift in electoral politics,” Warner said. “The shift is occurring, and that’s why the 1st and 3rd Congressional districts are in play now.”

Democrats, however, say that Warner’s reference to the potential vulnerability of Democratic Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick Rahall, both of whom have been in Congress for more than 20 years, is nothing more than a pipe dream.

“When you listen to Kris Warner complain, it’s kind of like a hummingbird nipping at a bald eagle,” countered state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Callaghan.

The governor, all of the state’s Constitutional officers and Supreme Court judges are Democrats, and the party controls both chambers of the state Legislature. Still, even Democrats note Republicans are making some progress.

“They’ve gained some ground, and we’re not happy about it,” Callaghan conceded. “But we’re going to rise to the occasions.”

The biggest test for Democrats next year will be finding a candidate to challenge Capito in the 2nd district. Gov. Bob Wise (D) held the seat for 18 years before being elected in 2000.

So far, they admit they don’t have anyone warming the bench. Wealthy attorney Jim Humphreys, who spent a combined $14 million of his own money against Capito in 2000 and 2002, is unlikely to run again.

“There’s no frontrunner candidate,” Callaghan said. “We need to find a good viable candidate. One will surface.”

Capito, meanwhile, continues to be the standard bearer for state Republicans.

“She scares Democrats to death,” Warner said. “She can do anything she wants to do right now in West Virginia. She’s unstoppable.”

Capito would likely top the GOP’s list of Senate candidates whenever a seat opens up. Democrats, meanwhile, could look to Wise, Mollohan, Rahall, Secretary of State Joe Manchin and former Gov. Gaston Caperton as top-tier candidates.

West Virginia is currently home to two of the least vulnerable Democratic Senators in the chamber: Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.

If Capito were to vacate the seat, Republicans may look to recruit state Sen. Lisa Smith, a former state House Member who knocked off the chairman of the Senate finance committee last year, or Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, to run to replace her.

Meanwhile, Republicans are doing more than just talking about challenging Rahall in the 3rd district. Warner recently joined Beckley-area businessman Joey Childress on a trip to Washington to meet with party officials. Childress is the president of Keyrock Energy Coal Inc., and has the ability to partially self-fund a campaign.

Childress isn’t alone. First Lt. Fred Hill (R), who is currently stationed in Kuwait with the West Virginia National Guard, is also reportedly interested in challenging Rahall, who reported $1.5 million in his campaign war chest as of March 31.

Warner contends that Rahall’s recent trips to the Middle East and comments about the war in Iraq have produced some anger in the southern, staunchly Democratic part of the state he represents. Rahall was part of a Congressional delegation that met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas last week and the group was scheduled to meet with Syrian President Basher Assad over the weekend. Senior officials in the United States have accused Syria of providing Iraq with war material and harboring terrorists.

“There are people in southern West Virginia, they’ve gone as far as to say that he’s aiding and abetting the enemy,” Warner charged.

Still, Warner said, the primary issue in any race against Rahall would be jobs. He said West Virginia now has the oldest population of any state in the country because young people have to leave in order to find work.

To illustrate that fact, Warner pointed to Army Pfc. Jessica Lynch, the West Virginia native who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital earlier this month after being taken prisoner. Lynch hails from Capito’s district.

“She’s a great example of the young people who have to leave the state,” Warner said, noting her desire had been to be a kindergarten teacher.

Republicans also claim to have a deep bench of other potential candidates, who aren’t likely to run next year but are viewed as rising stars in the 3rd district.

Three state House Members of note are Rep. Kelli Sobyona, who was just elected to a Huntington-area seat in 2002, Beckley-area Rep. Linda Sumner and Rep. Don Caruth, who hails from the coal fields in the southern most part of the state.

Potential Republican challengers to Mollohan in the 1st district are less visible, but Warner said that nonetheless he believes the district will be in play.

Among those who could run for the seat one day, are former state Sen. Jay Wolfe, Wood County prosecutor Ginny Connolly and state House Minority Leader Charles Trump.

Wolfe most recently challenged Rockefeller in 2002, taking 37 percent.

For his part, Callaghan declined to speculate on potential Democratic candidates who might run in the 1st and 3rd districts, whenever those seats open up.

He did, however, note that both parties in the state are bracing for the increased attention it will receive over the next 18 months.

“Certainly the White House is focusing on West Virginia,” Callaghan said. “From our standpoint the [Democratic National Committee] will be focusing more on West Virginia. We’re going to be getting a lot of attention.”

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