In West Virginia, Democrat Faces Surprising Battle

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin talks to President Obama at a memorial service for Sen. Robert Byrd.

hide captionWest Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin talks to President Obama at a memorial service in July for Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia. The Democratic governor was expected to cruise to victory in the race to fill the Senate seat Byrd occupied, but his Republican opponent, John Raese, has tried to tie the popular governor to the not-so-popular president and is ahead in some polls.

Charles Dharapak/AP

One seat the Democrats weren't worrying about this year was the U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia held for 50 years by Democrat Robert Byrd. When Byrd died in June, popular Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin announced he would run in the special election to fill the remaining two years of Byrd's term. Most analysts expected Manchin would win in a walk, but the contest has turned out to be anything but a sure thing.

The Bureau of the Public Debt, part of the U.S. Treasury that sells U.S. savings bonds and Treasury bills to finance public spending, is located in Parkersburg, W.Va., thanks to Byrd, who transferred it legislatively from Washington, D.C. Ironically, Democrats are struggling to hold on to Byrd's Senate seat in part because of the spending symbolized by the building.

At the recent Wood County Farm Bureau's 4-H pie auction and meet-the-candidates event, there was an array of tasty baked goods on display along with politicians, among them Republican Senate candidate John Raese.

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"Thank you for the Farm Bureau for that endorsement, and it's a great pleasure for me to have that endorsement," he said.

Raese is heir to Greer Industries, a West Virginia conglomerate that owns limestone and asphalt plants, radio stations and the Seneca Caverns. He has been on the ballot before, unsuccessfully taking on Byrd, challenging Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller and losing a race for governor.

This time, though, he says it's different.

"I think there is an outcry across West Virginia and certainly an outcry across America," he said. "People are generally upset and, quite frankly, I'm sort of glad they're upset, because if they weren't upset I'd have, you know, a wonder about the American public."

Republican John Raese

hide captionRepublican John Raese, flanked by his daughters (from left), Agnes and Jane, and his wife, Liz, addresses supporters at the Hotel Morgan after being declared the Republican winner in the West Virginia primary on Aug. 28. The heir to Greer Industries is hoping to win the Senate seat occupied by the late Sen. Robert Byrd for half a century.

Dale Sparks/AP

They are angry about the deficit, he says, and about Obama administration policies such as health care and proposed cap-and-trade legislation, deeply unpopular in the coal-producing state.

Raese has pumped some $2.4 million of his own money into his campaign. The National Republican Senatorial Committee has put in an addtional $1.2 million, buoyed by polls that show Raese with a small lead. Most of the money is going to TV and radio ads, tying the popular governor to the not-so-popular president.

Manchin has raised a bit more than $400,000, an amount matched by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. The Democrat has been hitting back hard with his ads, aimed at Raese's conservative economic views and his wealth.

Manchin has been governor for six years. Earlier this year, he was a constant presence during the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 miners. He has won a range of endorsements from groups that don't always back Democrats: the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Rifle Association and the West Virginia coal industry. He says he will take a West Virginia attitude to Washington.

"We put our house in order. This federal government needs to put its house in order, its financial house," he said. "This spending's got to stop; it's got to stop, and I have been very clear on that.

"And it's not me just saying, 'Oh, I think you need to do this.' I can go up and show 'em what we did."

Raese makes the argument that West Virginia voters should reward Manchin for doing a good job as governor by keeping him in that post.

"I think people like Gov. Manchin personally," said Delegate Tom Azinger, a longtime GOP member of the state House of Delegates. "I don't think it's a personal thing. I think they just want to change the politics in Washington."

Still, if Manchin loses in November, Azinger says it will be the upset of his lifetime. And it could upset many people who have been counting on a Democrat in this seat for more than half a century.

Correction Oct. 5, 2010

The audio version of this story (and earlier text versions) incorrectly identified the home county of Parkersburg, which is in Wood County.

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