It’s unusual for Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) to face opposition from a fellow Democrat. And the rare primary Mollohan is facing this year in the northern 1st district is atypical in that state Sen. Mike Oliverio is challenging him from the right and not the left.
Oliverio is running on a platform that focuses heavily on the need to reduce the large federal debt — not exactly a burning issue in Democratic primaries. He opposed increasing the federal debt limit, criticized the 2009 stimulus law that Mollohan and nearly every other Democrat supported, and also has some problems with the new health care law. Oliverio also opposes abortion, gun control and a “cap and trade” system to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
West Virginia GOP Chairman Doug McKinney even told a Wheeling newspaper recently that Oliverio “has always been a conservative guy” and that “we’ve joked for years he needs to come over to the party who thinks like he does.”
But Mollohan is fairly conservative for a Democrat on cultural and environmental policy. On cap-and-trade, abortion and gun control, he holds the same conservative positions as Oliverio.
The unconventionality of Oliverio’s campaign has drawn notice from party officials who wonder how he will unseat Mollohan by running as a more conservative Democrat.
“I don’t know really how you can run very convincingly to the right of Alan,” said Walt Auvil, the chairman of the Wood County Democratic Executive Committee in Parkersburg who is supporting Mollohan for re-election.
Oliverio disagreed. “He’s been voting a Southern California agenda as opposed to a northern West Virginia agenda,” Oliverio said of Mollohan.
Asked for elaboration, Oliverio said that he would have been an earlier and higher-profile opponent to cap-and-trade than Mollohan, who he said waited until the eleventh hour to announce his opposition to a bill the House narrowly passed.
Nick Casey, the chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said it will be difficult to unseat Mollohan in the primary in part because Oliverio entered the race late — on Jan. 30, the filing deadline and just three and a half months before the primary.
“I think Sen. Oliverio is a fine guy, and truthfully, I think if he had been out a lot earlier, it would be a much more interesting race,” said Casey, whose organization is neutral in the primary.
Oliverio said that “the race is less about how much time the two candidates have and it’s more about the choice that the voters have — and the voters clearly have a choice.”
“They have fiscal irresponsibility from the incumbent and fiscal responsibility from the challenger,” he added.
A senior member of the Appropriations Committee, Mollohan has defended his practice of securing federal funds for the 1st district, which includes Parkersburg, Wheeling and Morgantown. Casey said that Mollohan has a “long, distinguished record” and worked to build a high-tech corridor in and around West Virginia University in Morgantown.
“I don’t know what we’re elected to do if we’re not elected to work hard for our constituents, and that is what I’ve done for 28 years,” Mollohan said March 25 on West Virginia radio host Howard Monroe’s program.
Mollohan has suggested Oliverio hasn’t made the case to Democratic voters in the 1st district.
“Mike needs to tell people what he’s done. … He has said nothing about his record and what he has accomplished,” Mollohan said. “I think he needs to come forward to say what he has done and what he brings to this.”
Oliverio said he consistently voted for balanced budgets and helped increase transparency in the state Legislature’s operations. He said he worked to increase financial aid and to reform medical malpractice laws.
Oliverio said that there “are a lot of questions” about the ethical behavior of Mollohan, who drew scrutiny for appropriations earmarks he procured for West Virginia nonprofit groups run by friends and campaign contributors.
Mollohan has said he was exonerated by the Justice Department’s decision in January to end a four-year probe into the Congressman.
Oliverio’s campaign against Mollohan marks only the third time in the Congressman’s House career that he has been challenged in the primary. Mollohan’s last challenge came in 1998, when he took 87 percent against W.E. Ruehl, a little-known financial adviser.
Oliverio hasn’t shied in the past from waging underdog campaigns. He ran for West Virginia secretary of State in 2000, placing a distant third in a four-candidate primary won by Joe Manchin III, who is now governor. Oliverio made another attempt for the secretary of State’s office in 2004 and placed third in a seven-candidate race.
Mollohan isn’t one of Congress’ most accomplished fundraisers — he had $65,000 in his campaign account as the year began — but he has been building up his campaign treasury of late. One of his fundraisers last week was held at the Washington, D.C., home of Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).
Oliverio hasn’t yet filed a fundraising report because of his late entry. Like Mollohan, he’s been working to raise as much money as he can before the first quarter ends Wednesday.
GOP officials are aggressively targeting Mollohan in the fall election. If Mollohan defeats Oliverio in the primary, he will face the winner of a six-candidate Republican primary in which the top two candidates are David McKinley, a former state party chairman whose candidacy has drawn praise from the National Republican Congressional Committee, and Sarah Minear, a former state Senator.