The West Virginia Senate race to replace the late Sen. Robert Byrd has increasingly become a referendum on President Obama's agenda. In what could be one of their biggest upset defeats this election cycle, Democrats are fearful of losing the seat they have occupied for half a century.
When Gov. Joe Manchin won the Democratic primary in August, he was considered a shoo-in for Byrd's seat. A popular governor with approval ratings to match, Manchin, 63, won high praise for his work in the aftermath of the Upper Big Branch explosion, the biggest mine disaster in decades.
The Republican nominee, businessman John Raese, had run several times before unsuccessfully. He lost his bid against Sen. Jay Rockefeller in 1984 and couldn't defeat Byrd in 2006. Raese, 60, also ran for governor in 1988, only to lose to his Democratic challenger.
Virtually all polls had Manchin with a commanding lead two months ago. But the tide has since shifted quickly. Running on an anti-Washington agenda, Raese has attracted millions of dollars from national groups hoping to unseat Democrats in what they can then paint as a symbolic election.
The Obama factor is significant, says political analyst and radio show host Hoppy Kercheval.
"It was a given that Manchin would be the next senator," said Kercheval, who contributed to Raese's campaign and whose radio station MetroNews is owned by the GOP contender. "Those same people who were saying it's a slam dunk are calling me and saying can you believe this is happening."
The anti-Obama wave is so strong that even Manchin himself has distanced himself as much from the president as possible and as vocally as he can.
Today, for instance, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection sued the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for holding up mine permits, in an effort spearheaded by Manchin himself.
"I've asked our stakeholders to come together today because over the past year and a half, we have been fighting the President Obama's administration's attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia," Manchin said at a news conference earlier today.
Manchin is also the first, and so far only, Democratic governor to demand a partial repeal of the health care law, even though he supported it earlier this year. He has also sought to highlight his other conservative credentials; opposing abortion and reining in spending.
In a national political climate fraught with anti-Washington sentiment, Manchin's opponents have sought to portray the Democratic candidate as a governor who may be popular in his home state, but who will likely turn into an Obama clone once he gets to Washington.
"Joe's not bad as governor but when he's with Obama, he turns into 'Washington Joe,'" goes an ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, showing two men at a coffee shop talking about the differences between Gov. Manchin and "Washington Joe."
"We better keep Joe Manchin right here in West Virginia," one man says. "It's the only way we're going to stop Obama."
The West Virginia Republican party debuted campaign signs today, saying, "Obama Says 'Vote Democrat,'" clearly taking advantage of the anti-Washington sentiment in the state.
With Republicans viewing this race as a potential symbolic victory, money from across the country is pouring into the GOP candidate's coffers.