The poll from Public Policy Polling puts Republican John Raese in front Democratic Governor Joe Manchin 46 percent to 43 percent with 10 percent undecided. Perhaps the most eye-opening part of the poll is that 59 percent of the likely voters surveyed believe Manchin is doing a good job as governor and even more approved of Byrd's work as senator before his death.
The number that appears to drag Manchin down is 30 percent. That's the percentage of West Virginians who think President Obama is doing a good job.
It's a race that was not supposed to raise the concerns of any Democrat in 2010, after all, the party has enough to worry about this election cycle as it seeks to defend a disproportionate number of at-risk seats against a GOP onslaught. But there it is, more and more attention turning to the West Virginia special Senate election in which a vastly popular Democratic governor is seeking the seat long held by the late Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democratic legend, during a campaign year in which most political experts now agree that a GOP wave could even overtake the Mountain State.
Gov. Joe Manchin, whose sky high approval ratings would give any politician a warm, fuzzy feeling, was once thought to be a shoo-in against independently wealthy Republican businessman John Raese, who lost by double digits to Byrd in 2006, but the sour national mood against all-things-Washington and a deeply unpopular president (Rasmussen had Obama at 29% in late August) have pushed this race into unexpected territory, with Manchin enjoying only a single-digit lead.
Respected political analyst Charlie Cook in early September said, "This race has a very long way to go, and it might never make it to the Toss Up column, but it is certainly worth watching. As such, it moves to the Lean Democratic column."
The president's abysmal support, among the lowest in the nation, has Raese lashing the governor to Obama and trying to steer the race to national issues, like taxes, spending, and a too-big federal government. Raese, who has not yet drawn the attention of the Tea Party movement, mentions the president at every turn, painting the governor as a "rubber stamp for the Obama agenda."
And that is why, just steps from the Capitol last week participating in a coal rally, Manchin told several reporters, "They're just plain wrong," as he jabbed a finger toward the white-domed building behind him. "I think they are wrong in their position. They are trying to over regulate what they can't legislate," Manchin said of the "cap and trade" energy bill passed in the House but stuck in the Senate.
In fact, at times, Manchin sounded like he was reading from GOP talking points against the bill, "If they continue what they're doing, it's going to raise the price of every product used in the nation. It'll change the industrial might and the jobs for manufacturing. It's just ridiculous."
The coal issue is particularly important for Manchin. He must rake in votes from the Democratically-rich southern coal fields, an area in which Raese has sought to make up ground, recently mining for votes in a number of counties. And Raese's family is in the business, with Morgantown's Preston Coal and Coke.
To be sure, the governor knows he has a race on his hands, and he says he's taking it seriously. "Let me tell you something, any time you run a campaign, you run scared or unopposed. Okay? I have an independently wealthy opponent. And with the uncertainty, we work hard," Manchin told Fox.
That tough talk is supported by a tough attack ad recently released by his campaign called, "He's Not One Of Us," which portrays Raese as an out-of-touch rich guy who supports a consumption tax and an elimination of the minimum wage, while the governor embraces everyday workers.
Raese embraces a popular theme of this campaign season, however, that the greedy federal government needs to get its hands off of your business, a position that enjoys common cause with the popular Tea Party movement which recently upset the Republican establishment by stripping the GOP nomination from a popular former governor and congressman. It is a position Raese hammers home as he warns voters that Byrd's replacement, by law, will be seated immediately, in time for any lame duck session.
Raese has endorsed a number of controversial positions, though, like eliminating the Departments of Education and Energy, ripe territory for the governor to pounce.
Manchin, for his part, is working hard to make his separation from the president's agenda clear, telling Fox on energy, "The EPA is wrong. President Obama is wrong. This not something I'm saying because of political. He and I have respectfully disagreed for a long time on this and we've spoken in the White House."
The governor is not as easily pinned down on the major health care reform initiative Democrats passed earlier this year, however. He told Fox recently that he supports many of the provisions of the bill, but he would not have voted for it, saying that he opposed the process by which is was passed, as well as certain of its provisions.
"Why don't they take the things they agree on and work together? Why do they expand to the point where they've taken the personal freedoms? And taking away your ability to purchase supplementals and things of this sort that was very onerous. Those are the things that make Americans mad," Manchin said.
Raese has said he would repeal the law.
The governor says the jury is still out on the $814 billion stimulus bill, of which West Virginia took home $1.8 billion. Raese says, point blank, he would have opposed it.
Last week, the governor told Fox first that he supports extending all of the Bush-era tax cuts, including those on the top wage earners, a position that puts him squarely against the Obama Administration but in the same camp as Raese.
Manchin said of the tax cuts, "Whatever side you might be on, whether I think you're too rich, or you think someone's too poor, whatever it may be... and you think well you can afford it but you can't, the bottom line is, until you can run the government as efficiently and as effectively, and you start paying attention to the debt that this nation is carrying and you're passing on - until you really get serious about that - I wouldn't (raise taxes)."
And that position, as well as his positions on energy and tort reform (he's for it), ironically won this pro-labor union governor the endorsement Monday of the Chamber of Commerce, a first for a Democratic Senate candidate this cycle. Chamber spokesman, J.P. Fielder told Fox, "What you have in Governor Manchin is a candidate with a pro-business record. He clearly has a record of creating a pro-growth jobs agenda."
It was a stinging moment for the Raese campaign.
"It's nothing more than a bunch of D.C. insiders supporting a professional politician. This is exactly the type of thing that has gotten this country into the mess it's in today," the Republican candidate's campaign manager, Jim Dornan, told Fox Monday, adding, "This campaign doesn't understand why an organization like the Chamber could support a candidate who supports tax increases, Obamacare, and 'card check.'"
As for campaign cash, millionaire Raese has the clear advantage and has shown he is willing to kick in serious money. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, Raese has pitched in $2.4 million of his own money, representing 72% of his campaign's war chest.
And a number of conservative groups who have raised cash for their hand-picked candidates are considering jumping into the race for Raese, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, who's Senate Conservatives Fund PAC has raised $3.3 million this cycle, with a goal of $5 million.
The financial outlook for the governor is less clear. It is not yet known if Manchin's Chamber endorsement will be followed by much-needed dollars. The group is certainly very active this campaign season, mostly for Republicans, with a recent $10 million ad buy for a group of key Senate races. The national party would likely kick in support, if necessary, though soon it must prioritize the races.
Republicans appear to be poised for major pickups this election cycle, with 10 seats needed to flip control of the chamber. No doubt, West Virginia is now in the calculus of many as the GOP tries to chart a path toward the majority, but Manchin is still the odds-on favorite in this race, at least so far.
Two other candidates are vying for the support of West Virginia voters, as well. The Constitution Party's Jeff Becker and Jesse Johnson of the Mountain Party will also be on the ballot.