Sunday, October 19, 2014

Midterms are coming in West Virginia -- and we're failing!

After an extended summer hiatus, I'm back, with midterm elections on my mind. The Republicans are poised to build on their numerical advantage in the House of Representatives and have an opportunity to seize a majority in the Senate.

The Mountain State plays a significant role in determining which party will control the two chambers of Congress. All three of the state's seats in the House of Representatives are up for grabs and one of the Senate seats is in play.

One of the intriguing facets about the elections here stems from the fact that both parties have a chance to make significant gains here. Though historically a state that has voted Democrat, the unpopularity of President Barack Obama and the more conservative social policies of the Republican Party have made it far more viable in West Virginia.

The Senate seat left vacant by the retiring Jay Rockefeller (D) has been long viewed by Republicans as an opportunity to embed themselves in a state that has a strong history of re-electing incumbents. The GOP has made a strong move by running Shelley Moore-Capito (R), who currently serves as a Congresswoman in the 2nd District. Capito has held that seat since narrowly winning it in 2000, and has since built a strong presence in the district. Each subsequent election saw Capito winning by larger margins.

When Robert Byrd died in 2010 and left a Senate seat vacant, Capito chose to stay out of the way of Joe Manchin (probably for fear of losing) and wait for an easier path to the upper house of Congress. The move paid off, and Capito seems to be well on her way to becoming the first female senator from West Virginia.

Capito's opponent, Natalie Tennant, currently serves as the West Virginia Secretary of State. Though a Democrat, Tennant is a victim of poor timing and doesn't have the statewide presence to defeat a powerful opponent. Because the citizens of West Virginia hold a terrible disdain for the president, Capito has attempted to paint Tennant as an Obama disciple who would 'kill coal' and support an Obama economy. Moreover, Tennant lacks any real political experience outside of serving as Secretary of State, and that stint has produced several significant ballot errors, which cost the state tens of thousands of dollars.

Neither candidate in this particular race is very impressive. Both claim to be willing to 'fight' President Obama on the issue of defending coal and have exchanged some thinly veiled insults in their recent debate. Tennant all but called Capito a corrupt politician and Capito responded by leveling accusations of incompetency at Tennant.

Both women lack the necessary polish to take on the role of a United States Senator, and it's somewhat disappointing that one of them will probably be the junior senator from West Virginia for the foreseeable future. Tennant is too green and Capito doesn't really have much of a record to run on despite serving 14 years in the House of Representative.

My prediction: Capito has outraised and outspent Tennant by a 3 to 1 margin and probably collects a similar ratio of votes. Capito wins in a walk — 66% to 34%.

The northern third of West Virginia is the 1st Congressional District, where Congressman David McKinley (R) surprised many by winning a traditionally Democratic district in 2010 and again in 2012. His challenger is so terribly weak, I thought McKinley was running unopposed.

Instead, it would seem the Democrats chose to run Glen Gainer, a former state treasurer. By all accounts, Gainer is a good man, but this race has nothing of intrigue.

My prediction: McKinley further entrenches himself in the House, by a wide marigin. McKinley cruises — 65% to 35%.

The 2nd District of West Virginia provides the strangest of all Congressional races in the state. Since Shelley Moore-Capito vacated the seat to run for the Senate, one would think that parties make an effort to jump into an open seat by promoting solid, well known candidates with a wide appeal.

Τhe 2nd District pits Alex Mooney (R) against Nick Casey (D) in one of the stranger races I've seen in some time. Alex Mooney had lived in neighboring Maryland for well over a decade before only recently moving to West Virginia. He served in the Maryland State Senate until 2011 and then ran into ethical problems when attempting to mount a campaign for United States House of Representatives in 2012.

I find it strange that the West Virginia GOP supported the candidacy of someone who hasn't really lived in the state long enough to understand the needs and wants of the citizens here. Also, the quick switch from Maryland to West Virginia seems like nothing more than a blatant attempt to find a way into Congress for Mooney. Does he really want to serve the 2nd District or is he attempting to use this state as a means to gain power?

One would think that Mooney's questionable motives would make this election easier to predict, but Nick Casey is also an unknown quantity. He's served on the staff of Senator Joe Manchin (D), acted as the Democratic Party Chairman in West Virginia, and worked in the state as an attorney. He has no experience as an office holder, yet seems to be the preferred choice in this race. I don't know if Casey would be a good Congressman or not, but he might win this race by default.

My prediction: Despite the anti-Obama sentiment in the state, I can't imagine the people of West Virginia's 2nd District voting for a Republican with the perception of a 'carpetbagger.' Casey wins — 54% to 46%.

By far, the most intriguing race comes from West Virginia's 3rd District. The incumbent, Nick Rahall (D), is seeking his 20th term representing the state's southern most district and has withstood Republican challengers in the past who sought to tie him to President Obama. However, the challenge this time comes from a former supporter. In 2013, Evan Jenkins (R), a member of the West Virginia State Senate, announced his defection from the Democratic Party and his intention to run for the House in the 3rd District.

Rahall doesn't necessarily have his name attached to any well known bills, but has done a solid job at directing large amounts of money towards his district. That money has helped improve infrastructure and develop a more effective transportation network in West Virginia. It should come as no surprise that Rahall has been the chair of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and currently holds the position of ranking member. He's garnered a great deal of support in the past and in the recent debate with Jenkins, had plenty of energy, demonstrating he's prepared to fight to keep his seat.

Though Rahall has much going for him, there are chinks in the armor that can be exploited. In the recent debate, Jenkins accused Rahall of selling his interests in Massey Coal (now Alpha Resources) the day after the mining disaster as the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010. My concern was that Rahall didn't outright deny the allegation. Also, Rahall has won the last two elections in which the GOP attempted to link him with Obama, but the last two elections were victories by the narrowest margins he's faced in the last 20 years. One other frustrating comment came from Rahall. During the debate, Rahall twice stated that coal miners are the most precious resource we have in West Virginia. Though I respect the people who work in such an important industry, I can't agree with Rahall's statement and I don't think I'm the only person who feels that way.

Jenkins faces some a similar criticism Mooney is dealing with in the 2nd District. Jenkins was a longtime Democrat who conveniently switches parties because it offered an easier path to an elected office at the federal level. Why is it Jenkins makes the change at this time? How can the people trust Jenkins when he openly supported Rahall in the past?

Jenkins has a major problem in that he's following a losing strategy that didn't work for Spike Maynard in 2010 or for Rick Snuffer in 2012. Despite the fact that anti-Obama sentiment is strong, people want to hear more than just that. The only other thing Jenkins seems to offer the voters is that he's a supporter of coal.

The current state senator has another millstone around his neck. Because the Republicans see an opportunity to unseat a longtime Democratic incumbent, a large quantity of outside money has been spent on this race, including money from the Koch brothers. Rahall's camp has taken every opportunity to tout this fact and West Virginians aren't known for their love of Wall Street.

My prediction: Jenkins, even with that slicked back hair, can't overcome the incumbent. Rahall wins — 53% to 47%.

More important than predictions are what the campaigns of these various candidates tell us. The various debates, statements, and advertisements have plenty to tell us about the perceptions that politicians and outside groups think about West Virginia and its people. Two observations:

1. Outsiders are making a strong play to direct the future of West Virginia. The amount of money poured into the three House races and one Senate contest is staggering on its own, but the number of dollars spent by Super PACs and individual independent expenditures attempts to influence elections in ways that benefit the national Democrats and Republicans, not the people of this state.

In the WV-01, little outside spending has occurred based on the fact that Congressman McKinley is considered a no contest race. Polls from liberal and conservative groups suggest McKinley doesn't need the help to win here.

With respect to WV-02, the influence of outside spending is noticeably present. More than $300,000 has been spent by Super PACs, which do not have to disclose the names of people who originally donated the money to them. All of the outside spending taking place in this election is either supporting Mooney or against Casey. The money spent by these different groups is not based in the interests of West Virginia, since neither the groups themselves or the candidate they're attempting to elect are truly based out of West Virginia.

The most hotly contested House race, WV-03, has seen more than $7.5 million spent with the hopes of swaying an election. The amount of money promoting either candidate is miniscule. However, the money is nearly evenly spent on opposing both candidates. Democrats are desperate to hold a key seat in the House (where they already face a numerical disadvantage), and the GOP hopes to squeeze out a long time Democratic incumbent.

Another disturbing trend is the amount of money donated directly to candidates through normal PACs and individual contributions. An astonishing 95% of Mooney's campaign funds have been donated from individuals and groups who are out of state. Other candidates didn't fare much better. The figure for Rahall's out of state contributions stands at 72%. The figures for Capito and Tennant were 59% and 56%, respectively.

Apparently, Rahall's ads are wrong. West Virginia is for sale.

2. Politicians and their supporters are working hard to make certain that voters are distracted from the actual issues. Deep down, candidates and their supporters don't believe voters will do their homework. I wish I could say this was only a trend in West Virginia, but having viewed various political ads from neighboring states, it's very clear that members of Congress will say anything to obtain re-election and challengers will do likewise to obtain a seat of power.

One nationwide trend in campaigning is for candidates to tie their opponents to the Obama administration. Instead of attempting to explain policy situations, the main thrust of their advertisements and debate strategies is to degrade the president's policies instead of offering viable alternatives. One might think that this sort of strategy was limited to the Republican Party, but in West Virginia, Democrats have had to distance themselves from the president for fear of how voters might respond.

The current crop of political ads give the impression that Obama and his supporters are out to "kill coal" in this state. People singularly want to blame the president for the loss of mining jobs in this region with the regulation of carbon emissions by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). West Virginians believe the president and anyone who isn't explicitly in favor of scaling back EPA regulations is responsible for every lost mining job. Yet, none of those same West Virginians who blindly believe this seem to care (or be aware) that mechanization has probably killed more coal jobs than any politician could in two lifetimes.

Political ads also would have us believe that Congress and the president have control over the issue of abortion. While both sides of the abortion debate have firmly rooted beliefs, the two elected branches of the federal government have very little ability to change policy on abortion. The constitutionality of abortion rests with the Supreme Court. Even with conservative justices frequently holding sway over the Court, they have yet to overturn Roe v. Wade. Political ads would have people believe that the president or Congress can simply wave their hands and abortion would go away.

What really matters to West Virginians? Do you truly care if your member of Congress supported a policy backed by President Obama? Is it really the fault of Congress that the number of coal miners working in the state is declining (and has been for decades)?

Would you not rather focus on the fact that people not from this state are attempting to sway elections for their own benefit? This has sadly become the lasting legacy of West Virginia – allowing ourselves to be exploited by outside interests. Modern day imperialism.

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