A Referendum on Obama? Dems in Danger of Losing W. Va. Senate Seat

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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.

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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.

Money Pouring in to GOP Coffers

With Republicans viewing this race as a potential symbolic victory, money from across the country is pouring into the GOP candidate's coffers.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee reportedly plans to contribute a total of $1.3 million into Raese's campaign.

Conservative PAC American Crossroads, which was formed with the help of former Bush administration adviser Karl Rove, is planning a massive campaign to target voters that includes a "72-hour mail and phone call blitz prior to Election Day."

"West Virginia has emerged as a key state in the battle for control of the U.S. Senate and we are expanding our plans accordingly," Steven Law, president and chief executive of American Crossroads, said in a statement last week.

Democrats have launched their own attack, painting Raese as a candidate who favors corporations that send job overseas, and Manchin as a candidate who will lobby for the working class.

West Virginia has historically been a blue state; Jimmy Carter won the state both times he ran for president, as did Bill Clinton.

But the trend has shifted slowly to the right. Al Gore and John Kerry both lost the state narrowly. Obama lost by a much wider, 13 percentage point margin in the 2008 presidential election. Today, the president remains unpopular in a state where the coal and mining industry dominate and often clash with Democrats' agenda.

When Byrd died in June, he was the longest serving U.S. senator in the country's history, having been elected for nine terms.

While the state has historically been blue, Democratic candidates tend to be more conservative than their counterparts elsewhere, given the conservative nature of their constituency. For years, that conservative aspect wasn't reflected in the choice of political parties, analyst Kercheval said, but that is now changing.

"West Virginia has been a bit of a paradox," he said. "There have been a lot of Democrats in West Virginia who are really Republican in philosophy but they believed to be successful, you needed to be a registered Democrat. It looks like with this election, there might actually be a political change that hasn't been there in West Virginia."