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Democrats Savor Manchin’s Name on Ballot

In West Virginia, the Byrd Seat Could Drive Voter Turnout

It is becoming increasingly likely that West Virginia will hold a special election to fill the seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D) this November and that Gov. Joe Manchin (D) will be the 800-pound gorilla in that contest.

And that prospect is being cheered by some Democrats on the House side of Capitol Hill.

If all goes as expected, the highly popular Manchin will be at the top of the ticket this fall, which should drive Democratic turnout statewide. And that could be a boon for Democrats hoping to hold the battleground 1st district, which became open this year when 14-term Rep. Alan Mollohan was defeated by state Sen. Mike Oliverio in May’s Democratic primary.

Since then, some West Virginia political observers have wondered whether the contentious Democratic primary left a rift between Mollohan Democrats and Oliverio Democrats that Republicans might be able to exploit in a district that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by 15 points in the 2008 presidential race.

But Manchin, who once defeated Oliverio in a race for secretary of state before he became governor, would give Democrats of all stripes a reason to come out to the polls this fall. Manchin won 73 percent of the vote in the 1st district in his gubernatorial race.

“To the extent you can make the case that there are Mollohan supporters who are still upset with Oliverio’s victory, the chances of them coming out to vote for Manchin and bypassing the opportunity to vote for a Democrat for Congress are pretty slim,” one Democratic operative said Monday.

Oliverio campaign manager Curtis Wilkerson said Monday that Manchin would not be needed to solidify Democrats behind Oliverio because the party has already come together since the primary.

If any one group is fractured, Wilkerson said, it’s the Republicans, who fought a six-way primary contest that former state Del. David McKinley won by fewer than 4,000 votes. (Oliverio beat Mollohan by about 8,000 votes in the Democratic contest.)

But Wilkerson did acknowledge that having Manchin on the ballot to drive Democratic turnout would “take things from good to great.”

The National Republican Congressional Committee, which just named McKinley to the highest rung of its “Young Guns” candidate recruitment program at the end of June, declined to discuss the prospect of how Manchin might affect the 1st district contest because nothing is official yet when it comes to the Senate special election.

West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw has said a special election can take place before 2012, and Manchin has expressed his personal desire for the special election to be on the Nov. 2 ballot. But because the state election law is vague, Manchin last week called on the state Legislature to clarify West Virginia’s succession process.

The special session is scheduled to begin Thursday, and Manchin told the Associated Press on Monday that he could announce a temporary appointee for the Senate seat as early as Friday.

Manchin has said he will not appoint himself to the seat but has also acknowledged that it’s highly likely he’ll run for it in the special election.

One Republican strategist said Monday that Manchin’s presence at the top of the November ballot isn’t necessarily reason for Republicans to be concerned.

West Virginia voters will still be looking for a way to express their frustration with the way that Democrats are running Washington, and, the strategist said, just because they may give the popular Manchin a pass, it doesn’t automatically get Oliverio off the hook as well.

“I just have a real hard time believing that West Virginia, being arguably the most anti-Obama state in the country, is going to send two more Democrats to Washington,” the strategist added.

“With Manchin, we can’t make the case he’ll go there and fall into line,” the strategist acknowledged. But “Oliverio is a lot less defined, and we have a record to use against him.”

Ironically, the strategist said Republicans would have a better shot at the 1st district if the special Senate election is a coronation for Manchin rather than a real race.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the lone Republican in the West Virginia’s Congressional delegation, is the only Republican in the state who could be considered even a moderate threat to Manchin’s Senate aspirations.

But, the strategist said, if Capito runs, a lot more national party resources would be directed toward turning out West Virginia’s Democratic base, which is the part of the electorate least likely to give McKinley a chance.

Capito said Monday that she won’t make a decision about entering the Senate special election the process becomes more clear.

Many West Virginia political insiders have speculated that the Congresswoman would pass on challenging the governor out of deference to the long history between the Capito family and the Manchin family. But Capito shot down that notion Monday.

“I have a relationship with Gov. Manchin that goes back many years,” Capito said. “But that wouldn’t stand in the way of me putting my hat into the ring” if the Congresswoman felt it was in the best interests of the state.

As for GOP chances in the 1st district, Capito said an out-of-touch Democratic agenda in Washington, the cap-and-trade bill and the health care overhaul legislation would all have more of an effect on the House contest than the Senate special election.

“I think the Congressional races are going to boil down to what’s going on now in Washington,” Capito said, not whether Manchin happens to be on the ballot.

“We anticipate a competitive campaign since Mike Oliverio has tied his fortunes to the liberal Nancy Pelosi money machine,” McKinley spokesman Steve Cohen said Monday. “David McKinley is waging a campaign to be one of the 39 fresh faces in the House that replaces Nancy Pelosi as Speaker.”

Cohen said that as of June 30, McKinley had about $302,000 in cash on hand for the November election. Wilkerson said Oliverio also had right around $300,000 in the bank at the end of the second quarter.

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