Updated: 10:37 p.m.
West Virginia Rep. Alan Mollohan was defeated Tuesday in a contentious Democratic primary in which the Congressman’s ethical behavior was the dominant issue.
Mollohan lost to state Sen. Mike Oliverio by 56 percent to 44 percent in what was by far the toughest intraparty race for the Congressman since he was first elected in 1982. The Associated Press called the race with 71 percent of precincts reporting.
Mollohan, who turns 67 on Friday, is the first House Member this cycle to be defeated in a primary, but he likely will not be the last. His loss came just three days after Utah Sen. Bob Bennett lost his bid for the Republican nomination at a party convention.
Oliverio, a conservative Democrat, will face former state Rep. David McKinley, the winner of a six-candidate Republican primary. GOP strategists had hoped to face a politically weakened Mollohan in the general election but are still expected to make a play for a historically Democratic but culturally conservative district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 57 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election.
Even with Mollohan now out of the picture, McKinley told West Virginia radio host Hoppy Kercheval on Tuesday night that his race with Oliverio “is going to be a referendum on the Obama administration and Nancy Pelosi’s liberal agenda.”
Nick Casey, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party, described Oliverio as a “great Democrat” and said Republicans would have difficulty linking him to President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders.
“They came in and beat up on Mollohan for years and years on the Republican side for all sorts of things, none of which are applicable to Mike Oliverio,” Casey said.
Oliverio hasn’t said whom he would back for Speaker in the next Congress and said last month that “hopefully, there will be a better candidate than Nancy Pelosi [D-Calif.],” according to the Wheeling News-Register.
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said in a statement that he believes the party will hold the 1st district seat, which covers the northern third of the state.
“This was a tough and spirited primary process and we are confident that this historically Democratic seat will remain Democratic this November,” Van Hollen said. “On behalf of the DCCC, I thank Alan for friendship and his outstanding years of service to our country and West Virginia.”
Mollohan, a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, came under heavy fire from Oliverio for his use of the earmarking process to benefit nonprofit corporations run by friends and political supporters, some of whom participated in real estate deals with the Congressman. Oliverio’s ads mentioned that the Washington, D.C., watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington included Mollohan on its list of “most corrupt” Members of Congress.
Mollohan said that Oliverio was “lying” about him and that the Justice Department exonerated him when it said in January that it was no longer probing the Congressman’s finances.
The heavy focus on Mollohan’s ethics overshadowed some disagreements between the two men on policy. Mollohan’s support for a new health care law drew the ire of anti-abortion activists who said the bill didn’t prevent federal funding of abortion. Oliverio, who is anti-abortion, originally said he was undecided about the health care bill but later came out against it on the grounds that it included cuts to Medicare and didn’t do enough to bar federal funding of abortion.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group that targeted Mollohan for defeat, said Mollohan “now fully realizes that votes do have consequences. Mollohan’s loss comes as a direct result of his vote for health care reform that included federal funding of abortion.”
Oliverio also charged that Mollohan waited until the 11th hour to oppose a cap-and-trade climate change bill.
The Republican primary also was nasty, with initial frontrunners McKinley and former state Sen. Sarah Minear swapping criticisms of each other’s state legislative votes on TV ads that the wealthy candidates helped fund. Their squabbling provided an opening for real estate businessman Mac Warner, who rose in the polls but soon came under fire for liens on some businesses owned by family members.