CHARLESTON, W.Va. — To understand why popular West Virginia Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin is locked in a tough U.S. Senate race in a Democratic state against a perennial Republican candidate, look no farther than Jerry Thornton.
Like most West Virginians, Thornton praises Manchin — and voted for him twice — and thinks he's done a good job running the state during tough economic times nationally.
However, the good vibes toward the governor will stop in the voting booth next week when Thornton, a Democrat, crosses party lines and votes for Republican John Raese.
"I like Joe. I'd like to keep him as governor two more years, but I just don't trust him in Washington," said Thornton, a 67-year-old real estate appraiser from Charleston. "There's too much spending going on there right now, and there's no question that Manchin said at one point that he'd support the health care bill. As a conservative Democrat, I think that has to stop, and I think Raese's the man to do it."
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The race to fill the vacancy caused by the June death of iconic Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., has gone from what appeared to be a slam dunk for Manchin to one of the most competitive contests in the nation, and one that could affect the balance of power in the Senate.
The West Virginia contest is a window into voters' anxiety over the direction of a Democratic-controlled Congress and into the unpopularity of President Barack Obama in the traditionally Democratic but conservative Mountain State.
Raese and Republican Party officials have tapped into that anger by joining Manchin and Obama at the hip on issues on key issues, particularly health care and climate change legislation, which many consider a threat to the state's lifeblood industry, coal.
On the campaign trail and in ads, Raese calls Manchin a "rubber stamp," another Democratic vote that Obama could count on in the Senate.
Manchin, who once said he was "totally behind health care reform" but now vows to repeal "bad parts of Obamacare," has bristled under the criticism and complains that he's a victim of a "smear and fear" campaign by Raese and the GOP, who've turned the Senate race into a referendum on Obama.
"This is the first campaign I've ever been in that you haven't been judged on your performance," said Manchin, who was re-elected in 2008 with 70 percent of the vote and has a 69 percent approval rating as governor. "It doesn't matter — or doesn't seem to."
Obama is so unpopular in West Virginia that the state Republican Party planted 2,500 yard signs that simply read, "Obama Says 'Vote Democrat.' " A recent CNN/Time/Opinion Research Corp. poll found that 63 percent of registered West Virginia voters disapprove of Obama's performance.
The same poll found Manchin leading Raese among registered voters 45 percent to 38 percent, but deadlocked at 44 percent with the Republican challenger among likely voters.
"The race is centered and focused on Obama," said state Del. Dave Perry, a Democrat. For Raese, Perry said, "it's working because of the ratings and the polls of the president."
Frustrated Democratic Party officials said that in any other election year, Manchin's Republican opponent might not get a second look.
Raese, an inherited millionaire who's the chief executive of a privately held company with holdings in steel, limestone and media properties, is an unabashed economic free-trader who supports abolishing the minimum wage.
He's been a perennial candidate, losing Senate contests to Byrd in 2006 and to Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., in 1984, and failing in a run for governor in 1987.
Manchin's campaign has raised questions about Raese's dedication to the state, noting that he owns a home in Florida and that his wife, Elizabeth Raese, is registered to vote there.
Elizabeth Raese voted in Florida in 2008, according to PolitiFact.com, a nonpartisan project of the St. Petersburg Times. The couple owns a $2.67 million, 6,934-square-foot home in Florida's Palm Beach County but he's listed in records as an "owner nonresident," according to PolitiFact.
Raese also owns a home in Morgantown, W.Va., and pays state taxes in the state, according to his campaign.
Raese said the focus on his wealth and lifestyle was a sign of desperation that showed the governor was feeling the pressure from the "rubber stamp" label.
"He won't sit there and talk about Obamacare. He won't sit there and talk about stimulus. He won't sit there and talk about cap and trade," said Raese, who was days removed from a televised debate with Manchin in which he repeatedly tried to link the governor to the president. "I think Obama's policies (are) what really (have) traction. . . . He has tied himself with the president on issue after issue that affects West Virginia."
Manchin declared in the debate that "I'm not a rubber stamp for anybody, and never have been in my life" and he's taken aim at the image of him as an Obama yes man. Literally.
Earlier this month, Manchin launched a television campaign ad in which he shoots a mock copy of a climate change bill with rifle. It was a double-barrel message to signify his endorsement by the National Rifle Association and his opposition to cap and trade legislation, which he says could hurt the coal industry.
West Virginia is the second-largest coal-producing state, behind Wyoming, and the industry supports tens of thousands of jobs in the state. The West Virginia Coal Association has endorsed Manchin.
In addition to Manchin's target-practice ad, he sued the Environmental Protection Agency this month over tighter restrictions on mountaintop coal mining.
The suit alleges that as early as January 2009, Obama's EPA "appeared impatient and anxious — almost champing at the bit — to take a stand against certain types of mining in select Appalachian states with utter disregard for the economic impact upon the people in those states."
While Manchin's moves have annoyed some Democratic Party officials — Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine said he wasn't wild about the bill-shooting ad — Perry, the state delegate, said the governor was doing what he needed to do to highlight his conservative credentials and get out of an Obama shadow the opposition had created.
Some Manchin supporters think that efforts to link the governor to Obama are rooted in race.
Obama lost West Virginia's 2008 presidential primary to now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by 41 points. Exit polling found that one in five voters thought that the candidate's race was an important factor.
"A lot of this stuff is coming from people from out of state and are using Obama as a scapegoat, and the scapegoat is a black man," said Phyllis King, a black retiree from Deep Water, W.Va. "It's kind of surprising, but not surprising."
Simon Perry, an emeritus political science professor from Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., said that politics, more than prejudice, was at play, however.
"There is a subtle kind of racism in West Virginia, but I think that it can be West Virginians are very concerned about their jobs, and they see Obama as a threat to the coal industry."
Manchin is trying to allay those fears but he's engaged in a delicate dance, declaring that he won't let Washington interfere in the lives and livelihoods of West Virginians, while trying to be supportive of Obama without fully embracing him.
"There's something going on in America that's not who we are," he said at a rally in Oak Hill, W.Va. "There's a spirit of wanting someone to fail. You know what? If the leaders fail, this country fails. It doesn't matter who the president is, the president is your president and my president. . . . If you're rooting for failure, you're not a very good American. That's not who we are in West Virginia."
Opinion Research Corp. conducted the CNN/Time poll Oct. 8-12 with a sample of 1,273 registered voters and 783 likely voters. The margin of error is 3 percentage points for registered voters and 3.5 percentage points for likely voters.
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