Polls suggest that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's job may be in jeopardy after this fall's midterm elections. In one West Virginia congressional district holding its primary Tuesday, that could be true even if the Democrat wins.
In one of the more creative expressions of anti-incumbent fever, state Sen. Mike Oliverio is giving 14-term incumbent Rep. Alan B. Mollohan a stiff challenge in the 1st District's Democratic primary, and Mr. Oliverio is not sparing the Democratic speaker from California in his campaign.
Mr. Oliverio, 46, told a local newspaper that he would prefer to vote for a House speaker who has "the best interest" of the state. He later told voters at a local chamber of commerce dinner, "Hopefully, there will be a better candidate than Nancy Pelosi."
The primary could foreshadow whether Democrats can limit their losses this fall in congressional and gubernatorial races. Mr. Mollohan, who has not faced a primary challenge since 1992 and did not even attract a Republican opponent in 2008, is under fire for unpopular votes for the 2008 economic bailout and for President Obama's health care overhaul bill.
West Virginia and Nebraska are holding primaries Tuesday, and the Mollohan-Oliverio clash will be among the most closely watched contests.
The Cook Political Report and other forecasters suggest a Republican could win in November and are calling the race a tossup. Veteran campaign strategist Dick Morris predicted at the same chamber dinner that a Republican would win the seat, which has been held by Democrats since 1969.
The Republican front-runners are former state Delegate David B. McKinley, former state Sen. Sarah M. Minear and real estate businessman Mac Warner. Mr. McKinley appears to hold a slight lead.
Although the district has long been a Democratic stronghold, Barack Obama received only 42 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.
"The trend is clear at this point, and we have another six months," said Troy Berman, executive director of the state Republican Party.
Mr. Mollohan can point to his seniority on Capitol Hill and his powerful perch as chairman of one of the House Appropriations subcommittees. But Mr. Oliverio is trying to use that post against his opponent, running a tough ad directly attacking Mr. Mollohan's ethics.
The ad, which the Mollohan campaign sharply criticized, alluded to charges that Mr. Mollohan had earmarked spending in appropriations bills for nonprofit groups run by campaign supporters. The Justice Department in January ended a four-year probe into the reports without bringing charges.
The district encompasses the northern third of the state, but its culture and economy are largely oriented to nearby Pittsburgh, from its fading steel and coal industries to its sympathies for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Saying the health care plan will expand federal funding of abortion, pro-life groups have joined the effort to defeat Mr. Mollohan and have contributed some of the estimated $1 million poured into the race in the past few weeks. Among the groups are West Virginians for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List, which has spent $30,000 for radio ads questioning Mr. Mollohan's pro-life stance and attacking his vote for the health care bill.
"We promised Rep. Mollohan that we would make his re-election incredibly painful if he voted 'yes,' " said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.
West Virginians for Life has switched its endorsement to Mr. Oliverio and also supports Mr. McKinley. The group's national affiliate, the National Right to Life Committee, has made the same endorsements.
Major pollsters have not followed the race, so it remains unclear which Democrat holds the edge. Each campaign has released internal polling putting its candidate ahead.
Oliverio campaign manager Curtis Wilkerson said his candidate is "vehemently" opposed to the cap-and-trade energy legislation that Mrs. Pelosi helped push through the House in the summer of 2009. The legislation is considered a job killer for the state's coal-mining industry, and Mr. Mollohan voted against it.
"But this is not a race about Nancy Pelosi," he said. "This is a race about the corruption of Alan Mollohan."
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said the strategy against Mrs. Pelosi is unusual because few conservative Democrats like Mr. Oliverio are challenging incumbents.
"I've looked all over," he said. "Mr. Oliverio is a very rare exception."
Pam Van Horn, campaign manager for Mr. Mollohan, said the congressman has always focused on the best interests of his district, including bringing high-tech jobs to the region. She said the Justice Department investigation into Mr. Mollohan was politically motivated and urged voters to "move on."
Despite Mr. Mollohan's long tenure, Mr. Berman said, the incumbent might be an easier target for West Virginia Republicans than the lesser-known Mr. Oliverio.
"He's a devil we know," Mr. Berman said. "But I feel that with either candidate we still will not have difficulty in making the case it's time for a Republican."
After a relatively slow week on the political scene, both parties are gearing up for major clashes May 18.
Sens. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania face strong Democratic primary challenges. In Kentucky, both parties will hold spirited races for the open seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Jim Bunning.