- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 24, 2012

For a West Virginia Democrat these days, balancing the demands of local and national party politics can induce ideological schizophrenia.

The party controls the governor’s mansion, both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats and both houses of the state Legislature, but President Obama is so politically toxic in the Mountaineer State that a jailed felon won nine of the state’s 55 counties and took 41 percent of the vote in the state’s Democratic presidential primary last month.

The stark divisions were on display again last week when three of the state’s top Democrats — Sen. Joe Manchin III, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — revealed that they would be elsewhere when the party convenes in Charlotte, N.C., in September to nominate Mr. Obama for a second term.

Mr. Rahall has said he backs President Obama for re-election, but Mr. Manchin and Mr. Tomblin have not. Mr. Manchin, a former governor who is running for a full six-year term in November, said in a statement that he was “focused on bringing people together for the next generation, not the next election.”

Tomblin campaign spokesman Chris Stadelman told the Charleston Daily Mail last week that the governor “has serious problems with both Gov. Romney and President Obama.”

“The governor feels that his time is best spent working in West Virginia to move our state forward instead of attending a four-day political rally in North Carolina,” Mr. Stadelman said.

James A. White, a political scientist at Concord University in Athens, W.Va., said in a telephone interview that the state Democrats’ reaction reflects that “the presidential race in West Virginia is not going to be close, and everybody knows that.”

In 17 presidential elections starting in 1932, Republicans carried West Virginia just three times, in the GOP landslides of 1956, 1972 and 1984. But in the past three elections, Republicans have carried the state, with 56 percent of the vote in 2004 and in 2008.

Simon Perry, professor emeritus of political science at Marshall University in Huntington, said the state’s politics reflect voters’ quirks. They generally think that local politicians know their needs, while the president and national politicians in Washington just do not understand them.

“The reason that this happens is probably due to the fact that voters have little quarrel with the Democratic Party at the state level, but at the national level it’s totally different,” Mr. Perry said.

Mr. White said he expects Democrats to do well again at the state level in November, although Mr. Obama is given little chance against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney for the state’s five electoral votes.

One big problem, party officials say, is that key parts of the party’s national agenda — energy, health care and social issues — play poorly in the state. The coal industry is vital to the state economy, and Mr. Obama’s efforts to promote alternative energy sources have been wildly unpopular.

Mr. Tomblin faces GOP businessman Bill Maloney, while Mr. Manchin will run against four-time Republican senatorial candidate John Raese. Mr. Rahall, the state’s only Democrat in the House, will face state Delegate Rick Snuffer.

“Maybe their data shows their races are going to be tighter, and they’re trying to win over the marginal voter” by not going to the convention, Mr. White said.

There is a sharp divide in the state over whether the politicians should show loyalty to their constituencies or loyalty to their parties, Mr. Perry said. Five-term Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, a Democrat, has been far more muted about his disagreements with the White House and will be in Charlotte in September.

“I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t want to see Mitt Romney elected,” Mr. Rockefeller said in a statement. “And I have never made a secret of the fact that I support our president and the entire Democratic ticket, top to bottom.”

Republicans have rushed to capitalize on the dichotomy, state political observers say, running ads repeatedly linking local Democrats to Mr. Obama and his policies. Mr. White said one motivation of the GOP strategy is to tamp down local Democratic turnout and voter enthusiasm.

“The fewer people who vote in this state, if you are Raese, if you are Maloney, if you are Snuffer, that is a good thing,” Mr. White said.

Mr. Maloney even argued that Mr. Tomblin had missed an opportunity to publicly register his unhappiness with the president by not going to the convention.

“Earl Ray Tomblin has chosen to support Barack Obama by not going to his own convention to vote against the president,” Mr. Maloney said. “Barack Obama and his job-killing policies are hurting West Virginians. It is now clear that Earl Ray Tomblin supports Barack Obama and his policies.”

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