A Senate race in West Virginia illustrates the danger of being associated with Barack Obama
Elkins, W. Va. — At the Forest Festival parade, thousands of folding and lawn chairs are lined up on the sidewalks of the main thoroughfare, a street with a courthouse and fast-food chains, a Baptist church and a liquor store, all nestled beneath rolling hills cluttered with trees that are ripening into yellow and orange. The parade features high-school marching bands, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and local girls crowned Forest Festival royalty, who wear velvet dresses and wave to the crowd. When folks see someone they know in the parade, they holler at him.
Election Day being only about a month away, the parade also includes a stream of West Virginia politicians, smiling and glad-handing prospective voters. One of the politicians is Democratic governor Joe Manchin, who’s running to complete the late senator Robert Byrd’s term. Manchin, tall and broad-shouldered, genial and bluff-mannered, and clad in an orange campaign polo and khakis, works the crowd. He darts from side to side, taking pictures, waving, doing a little back step and turning around when he senses that he passed someone by. There are plenty who want a photo, and Manchin stops and poses with all of them.
“Business better?” he calls to a man sitting on the porch of a local business.
“Yes, sir, senator,” the man shouts back.
Some time ago, the man’s comment wouldn’t have sounded hopeful, just realistic. When Manchin announced his candidacy in July, it seemed a foregone conclusion that he would win. Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly two to one in West Virginia, and the last time the state elected a Republican senator was in 1956. Manchin is personally popular, too, with two-thirds of West Virginians approving of the job he’s done as governor.
But recent polls show Manchin roughly even with Republican John Raese. How did Raese, a businessman who’s lost three statewide races, catch up?
Chalk it up to President Obama. Obama has an approval rating of 29 percent in the state, according to a Fox News poll — and a disapproval rating of 65 percent. “You can’t overemphasize how much this is about the blowback to the Obama administration,” says Hoppy Kercheval, a West Virginia talk-radio host who is employed by and a supporter of Raese. “People call my show, e-mail me, ‘Gosh, he’s been a pretty good governor, but I don’t like the Democrat majority, I don’t like the direction of the country.’”
Obama has never been much liked in the state: He was soundly defeated by Hillary Clinton in the primary and by John McCain in the general election. Nearly two-thirds of West Virginians favor repealing Obamacare, and over half support the Tea Party movement. Randy, a middle-aged, bearded man wearing a baseball cap, tells me that people are “getting fired up and fed up.”
“I have a garage,” he adds. “Customers come in, and they just voice their opinions about everything. So you hear from a lawyer, you hear from a doctor, you hear from a coal miner.” What are they saying these days? “In general, ‘I’m really ticked off with Democrats’ . . . because of the government spending.”
Robert Rupp, a political-science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, puts it tersely: “It’s the Obama factor. If Raese can link Obama to Manchin, then he wins.”
Indeed, Raese’s campaign argues that Manchin would be “a rubber stamp for Obama.” At a “Reagan dinner” in Hurricane, W. Va., the night before the parade in Elkins, Raese points to the voting record of Sen. Carte Goodwin, whom Manchin appointed to replace Byrd until the election, as evidence: “Goodwin has voted 100 percent of the time in the favor and in the allegiance of President Obama. That’s hard to do if you’re not a rubber stamp.”
Arms folded across his chest, dressed in a dark striped suit and turtleneck, Raese has a commanding presence even when sitting on a bench, a leg casually stretched out. “I look at Obamacare, which Joe has come out and totally, publicly supported,” he continues. “Now he’s doing sort of a big 180 because he found that, politically, it isn’t a good thing to be around.” Raese adds that, unlike some governors, Manchin “accepted all kinds of stimulus money” for the state.
Raese says that a 2009 bill signed by Manchin is West Virginia’s version of cap-and-trade, a serious charge in a state that heavily depends on the coal industry. “Just 15 years from now, it limits the use of coal in all of our power stations by 25 percent,” Raese notes. “And then we have a little cap-and-trade that goes with it, where the public-service commission grants a credit for each megawatt that is produced by alternative, renewable energy.”
Manchin, who has been endorsed by the NRA and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and is one of four governors to get an “A” from the Cato Institute for cutting both taxes and spending, believes Raese’s charge that he would be a rubber stamp for Obama isn’t fair. “It’s just so inaccurate it’s basically a downright untruth and lie,” he says angrily, talking to me at the Randolph County Democratic-party headquarters in Elkins shortly before the parade begins. He says he would not vote for a national cap-and-trade policy: “It would be devastating to our economic future.” And the Manchin campaign argues that, since cleanly produced coal qualifies as an alternative energy source, the 2009 bill’s requirements could be fulfilled without unduly harming the state’s coal industry.
In March, Manchin said he’d vote for Obamacare. Now he says he supports changing some parts of the bill, such as the mandates and the requirement that small businesses file “1099” tax forms every time they purchase more than $600 in goods or services. “There are so many parts that need to be fixed,” he says — but then he starts speaking more optimistically. “I’m understanding that there are Democrats and Republicans who agree on quite a few things they think are good in the bill. Well, that’s a pretty good start. Repeal the things you don’t [like], keep the things you got, and move on.”
But it’s not just Raese who thinks “Washington Joe” would act differently than “West Virginia Joe.” At the parade, a state-government employee named Jim, wearing a yellow T-shirt and sunglasses, tells me he plans to vote for Manchin. “I’ve gotten raises from working for the state,” he says. “And I think he’s created a lot of jobs. . . . I don’t think we’re near as bad off as . . . a lot of other states are.” But Jim also mentions he’s not thrilled about either of the candidates. When I ask him what gives him pause about Manchin, he answers that he’s afraid the governor will vote for many of Obama’s policies.
About an hour after Manchin’s parade appearance, Raese comes bounding down the street. He’s energetically half-running and waving. Dressed in a baseball cap, plaid shirt, and blue jeans, he looks even more casual than did Manchin. He, too, works the crowd, talking to voters.
Raese has a different sort of appeal from Manchin’s. When I talk to him, he winks several times, peppering the conversation with little jokes and dry asides. But there’s a sharpness to his humor that may prove a double-edged sword with voters. During his speech at the Reagan dinner, Raese launches into an imitation of Obama. Holding up his hands, palms facing the audience, he announces that they represent Obama’s two teleprompters. Then he delivers a couple of lines, his chin yanked up high in an exaggeration of Obama’s presidential pose and his spine bent backward so he can see the raised “teleprompters” as his eyes dart from one imaginary screen to the other. It’s an antic sure to delight some Republicans — and to irritate anyone who expects senatorial seriousness or considers mocking a president inappropriate.
But as Manchin’s inability to translate high approval ratings into strong voter support demonstrates, this isn’t a race about likeability. It’s a race about which candidate will most vigorously fight the liberal policies, such as Obamacare and cap-and-trade, that are loathed by West Virginians.
True, West Virginia is the kind of place that the Obama administration’s policies seem intended, however naïvely, to help. In 2008, about 17 percent of the population was below the poverty level, compared with about 13 percent nationwide. The median household earned about $37,500, which is around $14,500 less than the national average.
But West Virginians are not seeing the change. “For years, people have been seeing jobs and tax revenue leave the state, and I think they’re starting to wake up that government policies have something to do [with] that,” says John Yoder, a Republican candidate for the state supreme court. “They’ve seen 70 years of Democratic rule in this state, and where are we? We’re number 50 in virtually every category. . . . As time has gone on, there’s a pattern that people are saying this isn’t working.”
Raese is optimistic about November 2. “As we say here in West Virginia, I think some people in Washington are going to be eating some smartening pills,” he says. “A lot of people are going to wake up, because it’s a changed electorate out here.”