CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The Democrats atop West Virginia's 2010 ballot find themselves running against, or away from, their party colleagues in Washington, D.C.
The races for U.S. Senate and the state's two Democrat-held U.S. House seats have become as much about President Barack Obama and their fellow Democrats running Congress as about the candidates themselves.
The same scenario has unfolded in most other states. As the economy struggles to recover, foes of Obama and such measures as the stimulus and the health care overhaul have rallied. A growing number of political analysts project Republican takeovers of one or both chambers of Congress.
The Associated Press recently documented the enthusiasm gap by reviewing the 35 statewide primaries held before Sept. 1. The study found that more than 4 million more Republicans than Democrats had cast ballots in those nominating contests.
From TV ads to Twitter, the GOP has been hammering home its message in West Virginia:
— John Raese, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, warns that his Democratic opponent, Gov. Joe Manchin, would be "a rubber stamp for Barack Obama."
— Elliott "Spike" Maynard, the Democrat-turned-Republican challenging Rep. Nick Rahall, lumps the 3rd District incumbent in with Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
— State Sen. Mike Oliverio, the Democrat running in the 1st Congressional District, has been similarly targeted by the GOP's David McKinley.
The situation marks a reversal for Democrats, who in West Virginia and elsewhere cast President George W. Bush as the boogeyman in 2006 and 2008. State Democrats had hoped they were immune from such attacks. In previous elections, they often sought to distinguish themselves from their national counterparts on such issues as guns and abortion. This year, their candidates seek to redirect the focus to local or regional issues.
TV spots from Rahall and Oliverio tout plans to preserve jobs — Oliverio decries steel imports from places like China in his district, while Rahall recounts his efforts for coal in his. Oliverio followed up last week by releasing a seven-point strategy that addresses such areas as trade, worker training and small business tax breaks.
Manchin has stumped on his nearly six years as governor, and his campaign's first TV ad mentions that record in passing. But the spot otherwise decries Raese's negative tone. Manchin also approached the family of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd about Raese's ad, because it included an image from the July memorial for Byrd at the state Capitol.
The Senate race will decide who will serve out the roughly two years left in Byrd's term; the 92-year-old Democrat died June 28. After hearing from Manchin, Byrd's family slammed Raese in a statement for using the image of Manchin sitting beside Obama. Raese's campaign said it did not intend to invoke the memorial, and countered that Manchin was seeking to sidestep the ad's main thrust.
When recently asked about his party, Manchin cited its policies that he argued have historically improved the quality of life in the U.S. But he also denounced "entitlement mentalities without responsibilities," and attempts to "add more regulations and make it much more difficult for businesses to compete in the global market."
"Voters should be angry at everyone in Washington for not talking to each other," Manchin told AP. "What Washington needs is a good dose of commonsense West Virginia, and the responsible government we've been running."
Among other attacks, Raese supporters allege that Manchin supports cap-and-trade. The Obama administration proposal aims to limit greenhouse gas emissions from such sources as burning coal. That came as a surprise to Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.
"He's clearly said he's opposed to it, and opposed to it because of the damage he feels it will bring to the coal industry and the coal-using industry here in West Virginia," Raney said.
Signs of a voter enthusiasm gap in West Virginia appear mixed. More than 94,200 ballots were cast in the Democrats' special U.S. Senate primary Aug. 28, when Manchin bested two other candidates with 73 percent of the vote. Nearly 54,100 voters chose among the 10 Republican candidates. Raese won with 71 percent.
Democratic primary voters outnumbered Republicans, though not quite by the nearly 2-to-1 margin the majority party enjoys among all registered voters. Democratic turnout equaled 14 percent of the party's registered voters, compared to 15 percent for the GOP.
The two parties saw similar turnout results in the regular May primary for the state's 1st Congressional District seat. There, Oliverio upset multi-term incumbent Rep. Alan Mollohan for the Democratic nod, while McKinley prevailed among a field of six Republican hopefuls.
But in the 3rd Congressional District, where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 3-to-1, May primary turnout was closer to 4-to-1 Democratic. With less than 20 percent of GOP voters turning out, Maynard squeaked past three other Republicans. Rahall defeated his primary challenger with more than 67 percent of the vote and nearly 26 percent of registered Democrats participating.
Obama lost West Virginia to Republican John McCain, receiving less than 43 percent of the vote in 2008. Obama did about as poorly in each of the state's three congressional districts. But while his support for cap and trade was a factor, six of the seven counties that Obama carried produce coal including state leader Boone.
Polling since suggests that Obama remains decidedly unpopular in the Mountain State. West Virginia was tied with Utah for the second-highest Obama disapproval rating, after Gallup surveyed 780 state residents between January and June. With just 34 percent of West Virginians polled approving of the president's job performance, only Wyoming's approval rating was lower at 29 percent.
Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press.