GOP’s road to 51: West Virginia

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This is the first in a series of articles looking at the races most likely to determine whether Republicans capture or Democrats hold the majority in the U.S. Senate after Election Day.

When popular Democratic governor Joe Manchin declared his candidacy for the Senate seat long held by the late Robert Byrd, many prognosticators considered Manchin’s bid a pretty safe bet.  After all, West Virginia hasn’t sent a Republican to the U.S. Senate since 1958.

Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, the sole Republican representing the Mountain State in Congress, was expected to challenge Manchin, but opted to continue her re-election bid for the WV-2 House seat.  Morgantown businessman John Raese stepped up and eventually became the GOP nominee on Aug. 28.  While a Manchin-Capito race might have played out according to the expected script of two established politicians battling for a promotion, Raese’s candidacy is offering an interesting twist on the anti-incumbent wave that is sweeping the country.

While Raese is certainly not a career politician, this is not his first trip to the political rodeo.  In 1984 he narrowly lost a contentious West Virginia Senate race to Jay Rockefeller, and in 2006 he ran a solid but unsuccessful bid to unseat the entrenched Robert Byrd.

The race has tightened considerably since Raese launched his campaign.  In late July, a month before the West Virginia primaries, Rasmussen indicated that Raese trailed Manchin by 16 points.  At that point, many political commentators had pretty much written off Raese’s bid in the Nov. 2 special election.  While it escaped many in the mainstream media, the lone bright spot for Raese in early polling was his strong favorability among West Virginia’s independent voters.

Back in the summer, West Virginia political consultant Jack Ellis outlined what he saw as the winning blueprint for the Raese campaign: “‘What Raese has to do now is to get some more people to identify him with their discontent with the status quo in D.C.’”

In fact, Raese’s campaign has been successfully building on the “them versus us” narrative ever since.  His definition of whom he is running against has also played into the political winds.  With plenty of West Virginia voters happy to have Manchin as their governor, Raese has figured out how to frame the race as a referendum on President Obama, who is about as popular with Mountain State voters as tea partiers are in San Francisco.

Recent polling indicates that Raese is now leading Manchin, and political handicapper Charlie Cook considers the race to be a “toss up.”  Seizing upon Raese’s momentum, the GOP will be putting at least $3 million into West Virginia this election cycle, according to Liz Sidoti at the Associated Press.

Between now and Nov. 2, Raese’s chief goal will be to convince West Virginia voters that a vote for Manchin is a vote for Obama.  Given the cost of television ads in the Mountain State, Raese’s ability to inject funds into his campaign, and his extensive grassroots network that dates back to the 1980s, John Raese might just have what it takes to become the next senator from West Virginia and put the Republicans one seat closer to the magic number of 10 new seats they need to take the majority.

Ford O’Connell and Steve Pearson are the co-founders of ProjectVirginia and CivicForumPAC, and the co-creators of TurnNevadaRed.com.