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Popularity isn't enough for Democrats this cycle

A new ad paid for by the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the West Virginia Senate race makes a fascinating argument about Gov. Joe Manchin (D): Sure you like him but do you want to send him to Washington?

"Joe's not bad as Governor, but when he's with Obama...He turns into 'Washington Joe," say two men in the NRSC ad. "We better keep Joe Manchin right here in West Virginia...away from Washington," one of the men says later in the commercial.

It's a nuanced argument to make -- why not to elect a popular politician to another office -- but one that appears to be paying dividends for Republicans in the Mountain State.

A look at polling shows why. A new Fox News poll shows businessman John Raese (R) leading Manchin 48 percent to 43 percent despite the fact that 66 percent of West Virginia voters approve of the job the Democrat is doing as governor and 65 percent like him personally.

The same trend is apparent in a Public Policy Polling survey conducted late last month. (PPP is a Democratic-affiliated firm that conducts automated, rather than live caller, interviews.)

In that survey, Raese took 46 percent to 43 percent for Manchin even though Manchin's job approval rating was at 59 percent -- the second highest rating of any governor in the country in PPP data.

What explains the massive gaps between Manchin's job approval number and his showing on the ballot test? In a word: Obama.

President Obama is deeply unpopular in the state with just 29 percent of West Virginia voters approving of the job he is doing in the Fox poll and 30 percent expressing approval in PPP.

Obama's weak numbers -- as well as the less-than-stellar numbers for the national Democratic party -- are causing a major drag effect on Manchin in spite of the fact that voters of both partisan stripes generally like him and the job he has done as governor.

Republicans, for their part, are doing everything they can to link Manchin to Obama. "A vote for Manchin is a vote for Obama," is the tagline of the NRSC ad; Raese's latest commercial dubs Manchin "Rubber Stamp Joe".

While West Virginia is the most glaring example of how the difficult national environment for Democrats is making it tough even on some of their most popular politicians, it's not the only one.

Late last week, the Republican Governors Association went up with ads against Gov. John Lynch -- the popular Democratic incumbent in New Hampshire.

"I think John Lynch is a very nice man," says one woman in the ad. "Unfortunately he has not been able to say no to the state legislature and stop the spending."

Lynch, who was re-elected with a stratospheric 70 percent in 2008, has seen his race against former congressional candidate John Stephen (R) tighten in recent weeks due almost entirely to the state's political climate.

New Hampshire is a place where spending and debt issues are always top-of-the-mind issues for voters -- and that sentiment has been magnified by the growing concerns regarding those matters at the national level.

The result? Republicans appear well-positioned to hold the state's open U.S. Senate seat and are in jump-ball races in the two congressional districts. Lynch has more political cushion than that but the narrowing of his re-election bid suggests that the winds are blowing hard in his face at the moment.

Popular incumbents losing isn't a new phenomenon but it occurs almost exclusively in years in which the landscape is tilted heavily toward one side and in places where the incumbent belongs to the party that is not the majority party in the state.

In 2006, Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) was well-liked by Maryland voters but distaste toward President George W. Bush was the stronger sentiment in the Democratic-leaning state. Ehrlich lost to now Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) 53 percent to 46 percent -- a defeat he is seeking to avenge next month.

Two years before that, South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle (D) fell to John Thune (R) despite the fact that poll after poll showed that voters in the state liked Daschle personally.

Manchin is hoping to avoid Daschle's fate although the current trend line is not encouraging. His best (only?) path to victory is to distance himself from the President and the national party and show voters why -- based on past performance -- he is the better choice to represent the state in Washington. Popularity won't enough in this election cycle.

By Chris Cillizza  | October 5, 2010; 11:14 AM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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Next: Fast Fix: Are Democrats strengthening their chances in November?

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