West Virginia: Wild and Perhaps Not So Wonderful for Democrats

As states go, West Virginia and New Mexico don't have much in common. Except that in the 2010 midterm elections, West Virginia has a lot of potential to be a near-reverse mirror of what unfolded politically in New Mexico two years ago.

In 2008, New Mexico boasted a total of three Republicans in its five-member Congressional delegation: one senator and two House members. Democrats held one Senate seat and one House seat.

But the 2008 election changed everything. New Mexico voters elected Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) and won all three House contests, sending Reps. Martin Heinrich (D-MN), Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) and Harry Teague (D-NM) to Washington.

Heinrich's victory was a bit of a surprise. And Teague became the first Democrat to represent his southern New Mexico district in 28 years.

West Virginia is a legendary bastion of the Democratic party. Democrats hold both U.S. Senate seats and two of the state's three House seats. They control all six statewide elected posts. And Democrats dominate both houses of the state legislature, holding a 26-8 advantage over Republicans in the state senate and a 71-29 majority in the House of Delegates.

But 2010 is a year of shifting political plate tectonics. And like the seismic shakeup in New Mexico, the seemingly-Democratic stronghold of West Virginia has the potential to elect a Republican to the Senate and send two new Republican Congressmen to Capitol Hill as well.

Such a scenario was all but unthinkable just a few months ago. But this is 2010. And to paraphrase the slogan plastered across many of West Virginia's license plates, this election is going to be wild. And the outcome might not so wonderful for Democrats.

The first signal of trouble for West Virginia Democrats came in the spring. State Sen. Mike Oliverio unseated 28-year Congressional veteran Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV) in the Democratic primary. Oliverio questioned Mollohan's ethics and pro-lifers groused about the Congressman's support for the health care reform law.

But there was another factor at play. Mollohan is what's called a "cardinal" in the House. Cardinals chair the various appropriations subcommittees that control how much money federal departments can spend on particular programs. And cardinals are known for bringing home the bacon to their local districts.

That certainly didn't benefit Mollohan in anti-Washington year when big spending is an issue.

It's now in vogue for lots of House Democrats to distance themselves from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). But Oliverio may have been the first Democratic candidate for the House to tell voters he wouldn't support Pelosi for Speaker if they sent him to Washington.

Oliverio was Mollohan's first primary challenger in 18 years and dispatched him 56-44 percent. Oliverio's victory may have been the initial shockwave to ricochet through West Virginia. But it proved to be only tremor compared to the next seismic burst.

Legendary Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) died over the summer. Sen. Carte Goodwin (D-WV) was quickly tapped to succeed Byrd. But Goodwin agreed to only stay in office until a special election in November to fill out the remainder of Byrd's term.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D) soon jumped into the race. West Virginia political observers often described Manchin as Byrd's "heir apparent." In fact, Manchin's election to the Senate was considered to be a lock after popular Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) declined to run. In fact one of the reasons Manchin called a special election for the Senate seat now is because he believed he could capitalize on his own popularity and undercut a potential GOP challenger running for the seat in 2012.

But midterm elections are often nationalized. And once John Raese secured the Republican nomination for Senate, he nationalized West Virginia's political climate. Raese seized on President Obama's 65 percent disapproval rating in the state and suggested that Manchin would carry water for the beleaguered president on Capitol Hill. Raese also benefitted from high name recognition after running statewide numerous times over the past two decades. Now the Manchin-Raese race is in a statistical dead heat. And Manchin is trying to distance himself from the abortion provision in the health care reform law and from Mr. Obama's environmental policies.

FOX's Carl Cameron reported that the Manchin-Raese contest may be the closest Senate race in the country and a fraction of a percentage point could decide the outcome.

So if Manchin and the Democratic machine falters at the top of the ticket, what does that mean for upstart Mike Oliverio in northern West Virginia? Or long-time Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) in the south?

If Raese is busy connecting Manchin to the president, Oliverio's opponent wants to Velcro him to Nancy Pelosi.

"It's all about Pelosi," said Oliverio's opponent, former GOP state party chair David McKinley. McKinley is now locked in a tight race with Oliverio in what was thought to be a solid Democratic district. Oliverio started with a lead but the Cook Political Report now rates the race as a toss-up. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) overwhelmingly carried the district in the 2008 presidential race. And McKinley is hooking Oliverio to the House Speaker in a TV ad, arguing that his Democratic counterpart "supports job-killing liberal Nancy Pelosi."

Oliverio denies any tie to the speaker and says he won't decide who he'll support for speaker until he knows who the candidates are.

In coal country, Rahall is locked in a battle with former West Virginia Supreme Court Chief Justice Spike Maynard.

The fact that Rahall's seat is even in play attests to how successful Republicans have been at nationalizing the election. Rahall chairs the House Natural Resources Committee and usually secures at least 60 percent of the vote. But this is 2010. And Republicans would love to knock off a few committee chairs, ranging from Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-MO) to Budget Committee Chairman John Spratt (D-SC) to Rahall.

Until recently, most of the Rahall-Maynard race focused on coal. But Maynard recently unleashed a vicious attack ad on Rahall. Rahall's grandfather is a native of Lebanon and moved to West Virginia decades ago. Maynard's ad plays on fears some may harbor about Rahall's Lebanese descent.

The commercial alleges that the Congressman took "campaign cash from a group with terror ties" and from "convicted terrorist" Abdul al-Amoudi. The spot also says that Rahall's sister Tanya lobbied for Qatar while he backed pro-Qatari bills. A graphic on the screen then explains to viewers that "Qatar is an oil-rich country in the Middle East."

The commercial ends with the summation that Rahall is "good for the Middle East. Good for Obama. Bad for America."

The ad is silent on the fact that al-Amoudi contributed to the Republican National Committee and President Bush.

Political handicappers don't believe Rahall is facing the same political peril as Manchin or Oliverio and expect the Congressman to win. But Manchin's weakness at the top of the ticket doesn't help Rahall. And it could prove fatal to Oliverio.

Two years ago, New Mexico voters pirated their license plate slogan and made the state a "land of enchantment" for Democrats. West Virginia might not experience the wholesale political change that swept through New Mexico two years ago. But the potential is certainly there. And Republicans are rooting for some "wild, wonderful" results on election night in what has been one of the most-Democratic states in the union for ages.

- FOX's Carl Cameron contributed to this report.