In West Virginia, Senate Is Yet Another Seat to Sweat

Posted September 29, 2010 at 6:54pm

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has dropped half a million dollars into West Virginia’s Senate race in the past week while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has spent $1.2 million.

The ad buys came as GOP nominee John Raese dropped into Washington, D.C., for a sit-down with NRSC Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) and as Democratic operatives continue to scramble to play down a Democratic poll that showed Gov. Joe Manchin (D) trailing in the contest.

It’s official: West Virginia’s special election is part of Senate Democrats’ firewall against a GOP takeover of the Senate.

The fact that Republicans have even forced national Democrats to engage in the Mountain State is a victory for national Republicans. It puts Democrats further on the defensive and will drain away resources Democrats could use to go on offense elsewhere as they look to maintain control of the Senate.

A victory by Raese would likely be viewed alongside Christine O’Donnell’s GOP primary win in Delaware as the upset of the cycle in the Senate.

The latest survey from Rasmussen Reports on Monday showed Raese ahead 48 percent to 46 percent.

But with almost five weeks left before Election Day, Manchin still has plenty of time to shift the dynamics of the race, and it would be folly to count out the well-liked, well-funded governor who boasts some of the highest approval ratings of any chief executive in the country.

For now, political insiders attribute Raese’s unexpected momentum to his ability to catch Democrats by surprise, and to simple good timing.

“When Raese first got into this and he started putting his spots up, I thought he’s not doing anything different in this campaign than he’s done in his previous failed campaigns. It looked like the same old Raese,” one West Virginia GOP operative said Wednesday.

Raese has taken on, and been defeated by, two of West Virginia’s most powerful Democrats in the past quarter-century. Raese challenged then-Sen. Robert Byrd in the Senator’s last re-election bid in 2006 and secured just 34 percent of the vote against the political icon. Raese faced Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) in a much closer contest in 1984, when he took 48 percent of the vote as Rockefeller won his first Senate term.

“What I think the difference is this year is he’s just really tapped into this passionate resentment of what’s going on in Washington, and voters are just desperately looking for somebody to just shake things up,” the operative said. “Be a bull in the china shop.”

And that description fits Raese perfectly.

Always self-assured, Raese is a man who obviously enjoys the spotlight and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

“I’m a little bit to the right of the tea party,” Raese said when asked about his affiliation with that group on Wednesday. “I always kid them because they’re a little to the left of me.”

But Raese also agreed that his campaign message this cycle is not much different from the one he ran on when he challenged Byrd and Rockefeller.

“I’ve been running a campaign on capitalism and free enterprise, and it’s resonating,” he said. “It isn’t any different at all. It’s the same message. I think it resonates today more than ever because when you look at the last two years in Washington, we have had a huge shift to the left and … a lot of our politicians aren’t giving the electorate the chance to say, ‘Maybe we’re not for a lot of this socialism that we see coming down the road.’”

Democratic operatives acknowledged Wednesday that no one expected Raese to gain momentum so quickly after securing the GOP nomination last month.

“It seems the governor was just like the rest of us in accepting the conventional wisdom” that Manchin was the prohibitive favorite in the special election, said George Carenbauer, a former chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party. “I think Joe Manchin thought he had his own independent identity here.”

But Raese and his GOP allies have found success in making the contest about two different Joe Manchins. They’ve worked to separate “West Virginia Joe,” who is well-liked in the state, from “Washington Joe,” whom they have called a rubber stamp for national Democratic policies and, more specifically, President Barack Obama. Obama was never a popular figure in West Virginia and became even less liked after he pushed an energy policy that many view as a direct attack on the state’s large coal industry.

Along with the NRSC money that has flowed into the contest, Raese has now raised about $250,000 in the month since he won the primary and put about $1.3 million of his own money into the race.

“Raese is successfully linking Manchin to Barack Obama, and Manchin has got to de-link that in a way that allows Democrats to be comfortable with it,” Carenbauer said.

Democratic strategists will also spend the next five weeks trying to define Raese, an effort that the DSCC began this week with an ad that began running Tuesday.

Raese “wants to eliminate the minimum wage, privatize Social Security, and has a record of laying off workers and supporting tax breaks for businesses that ship jobs overseas. With that kind of baggage, the more West Virginia voters find out about John Raese, the more they will reject him,” DSCC spokeswoman Deirdre Murphy said.