In what could prove a sleeper race with national implications, some West Virginia Democrats say they are seeing signs that the state's Senate race could be turning into an unexpectedly tough and expensive battle.
While popular Gov. Joe Manchin III, 63, was widely regarded by Democrats as a sure thing to fill the seat long held by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a new Rasmussen poll released this week showed his Republican challenger, Morgantown business executive John Raese, 60, gaining significant ground.
With polls giving surging Republicans an outside chance of gaining the 10 Senate seats needed to reclaim the majority, an upset in a West Virginia race - a race that has largely been off the national political radar - could prove a critical piece of the puzzle.
A late July poll showed Mr. Manchin outpacing Mr. Raese 51 percent to 35 percent, but a Rasmussen survey of 500 "likely voters" taken a little more than month later found the governor's lead had shrunk to 6 percentage points, shocking many who hadn't considered that the Byrd seat could go to anyone but another well-known Democrat.
Despite a tepid 12 percent turnout in the state's Aug. 28 primary, heightened press attention to the West Virginia Senate battle is sure to buoy the enthusiasm of state voters, political observers say, noting that Republican voters have turned out in far greater percentages than Democrats in this primary cycle.
"Republicans are far more motivated to vote than Democrats right now," said Jennifer Duffy, a senior editor at the Cook Political Report who follows Senate races and said the new Rasmussen poll more than caught her attention.
"West Virginia, while it's always been a blue state, has always had some Republican tendencies to it," she said. "Am I ready to move this into the 'toss-up' column? I don't know. But I do think it's a race worth watching, given the current political climate."
While the governor and both U.S. senators are Democrats, West Virginia has leaned Republican in recent national elections, supporting George W. Bush twice and backing Sen. John McCain over Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. About 70 percent of state residents disapprove of the job Mr. Obama is doing, according to the most recent Rasmussen survey.
Mr. Raese, a Farmington native and successful coal, steel and media company executive who has financed much of his campaign, has run unsuccessfully for the Senate twice before.
This third run, however, could be the charm, supporters say.
"This state is hungry for change," said Jim Dornan, Mr. Raese's campaign director. "Obama promised it two years ago, and these people aren't buying it. That anger is turning into John's favor."
Mr. Manchin has touted his success in keeping West Virginia on track in a tough recession, noting that the state has been able to maintain its economy and avoid tax increases. Mr. Manchin told the Associated Press that West Virginia Democrats are different, not attached to national labels.
"Washington could use a good dose of West Virginia," the governor said.
Mr. Manchin's campaign spokeswoman, Sara Payne Scarbro, was traveling this week and did not respond to a request Thursday for comment.
Washington-based GOP strategist Cheri Jacobus, who is watching the race closely, thinks Rasmussen's poll numbers "put West Virginia in play in a big way and put a GOP-controlled Senate within closer reach."
"A month of Democrat hubris seems to have spurred West Virginians to be reminded that they are in control, rather than the politicians," she added.
But Mr. Manchin retains high favorability ratings among state residents and is a formidable campaigner. Democratic political strategist Joe Trippi said the governor can win by focusing on state rather than national issues, even in a year when other top Democrats are struggling badly.
"Manchin is popular," Mr. Trippi told Fox News. "If he can make [the election] local, he can win the seat."
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