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New hope for Senate Republicans in West Virginia

By Aaron Blake

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's (D) Senate campaign is turning from coronation into contest.

A strong distaste for Democrats in Washington coupled with an emerging federal investigation in the Mountain State threatens what was thought to be a relatively easy hold for Democrats after Sen. Robert C. Byrd's (D-W.Va.) death earlier this year.

And, Republicans are viewing the race in a new light, hoping businessman John Raese uses his personal wealth and the tilt of the national playing field to put the seat in play this November.

More and more, West Virginia looks to be a seat Republicans may need in order to take 10 seats from Democrats and retake the majority next Congress -- particularly given polling in Delaware and Washington State that suggests those once-promising pickup opportunities have faded somewhat.

Republicans' optimism in West Virginia has grown in leaps and bounds of late and it was confirmed by a poll by Democratic-leaning pollster Public Policy Polling -- a firm that uses automated rather than live callers to conduct their interviews -- that showed Raese at 46 percent and Manchin at 43. That was a marked shift from every other poll on the race, which had shown Manchin leading outside the margin of error and in many cases by double digits.

Though neither side thinks Raese is actually in the lead right now, both acknowledge the race has closed in recent weeks and that Manchin's lead is probably in the single digits. And the reason is clear: the national environment.

Manchin, like the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut, state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, came into the race with sterling approval ratings but hadn't faced a tough race in many years. (Blumenthal hasn't been tested seriously in two decades; Manchin was first elected governor with 64 percent in 2004.) Both have seen their opponents turn massive early deficits into close races, largely thanks to the environment they're running in.

And if the environment can drag down a Democrat in Connecticut -- a state that leans heavily to Blumenthal's party -- it can surely do so in conservative-minded West Virginia where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won by 13 points in 2008.

Manchin's approval rating has been measured as high as the 60s or 70s (it's 59 in the PPP poll), but he isn't breaking 50 percent in recent head-to-heads.

Why?

Even if voters really like Manchin, they don't necessarily want to send another Democrat to Washington right now. The state gave President Obama just 43 percent of the vote in the general election and a meager 26 percent in his primary fight against then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. And, a recent Gallup poll put the President's approval in the state at just 34 percent -- tied for the second-lowest among all 50 states.

Democrats say much of the reason Raese has made up ground is that he's been on TV for more time than Manchin and that the party hasn't really gone about defining the Republican yet.

"We've been a little delinquent in telling the story on John Raese, but that's going to change," promised one Democratic strategist.

Manchin's campaign released a new ad this week hitting Raese on the fines and safety violations at his companies, saying he would be "bad for miners." Manchin has also focused on Raese's support for a flat tax and repealing the minimum wage, as well as his failure to pay workers' compensation.

Republicans, meanwhile, insist that now that the race is close, Manchin will be forced to talk about federal issues, like the Democratic health care bill and the Employee Free Choice Act, where past statements of support could come back to haunt him. That could be a real liability in a state that is decidedly against the Democratic agenda in Washington.

The x-factor in the race is the federal investigation in the state. A local television station reported Tuesday that the probe is looking into a roads project connecting Interstate 79 to Manchin's hometown, Fairmont. Little is known about the investigation, except that subpoenas were issued to the state highways and administration departments, but the media in the state are getting restless about the lack of answers.

Raese isn't considered a top-tier candidate (Republicans had hoped Rep. Shelley Moore Capito would jump into the race), and he has notably lost three statewide campaigns -- for Senate and governor in the 1980s and in a landslide against Byrd in 2006. But if this cycle is teaching us anything, it's that candidates voters have rejected before (Christine O'Donnell, Sharron Angle, Joe Miller) can have a new political life if the circumstances are right. Raese got some good news Wednesday when Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R), a top potential 2012 presidential contender, endorsed him.

Raese, who has self-funded millions in previous campaigns and has considerable wealth, could be tempted to throw even more money than the $1 to $2 million he's spent on previous campaigns.

Manchin knows he will likely be outspent. He has formed an unusual alliance between the Chamber of Commerce and labor unions, but because he is such a conservative Democrat, he's less able to tap more traditional sources of cash in the liberal community. (Ditto for candidates like Reps. Brad Ellsworth and Charlie Melancon, Democrats running for Senate in Indiana and Louisiana, respectively.)

Any other Democrat would probably be sunk in the current environment. Manchin's personal popularity and skills as a candidate keep him as the favorite but a much more slight one than almost anyone would have imagined even a few months ago.

By Aaron Blake  | September 23, 2010; 2:53 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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