- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - By tying West Virginia Democrats to all things Obama and Washington D.C., Republicans hope they can claim key congressional wins and end 85 years of Democratic rule in the state House of Delegates in one election.

West Virginia has drawn national attention for races that could dictate control on Capitol Hill, including a likely U.S. Senate matchup between West Virginia Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant and Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito. Senate Democrats are clinging to a slim majority in Congress’ upper chamber.

At the same time, West Virginia Democrats face their biggest challenge in decades for control of the House of Delegates, where all 100 seats are up for election. Republicans, who trail Democrats by six seats, last held a House majority in 1928.

West Virginia drifted away from presidential Democrats long before Obama. Its voters haven’t picked a Democrat over a Republican since Bill Clinton in 1996. The state currently has one Democrat and two Republican House members, and two Democratic senators.

But Democrats have kept control in Charleston by claiming an independent streak, saying say they have no allegiance to Obama or progressive congressional Democrats. They argue they’re a category all their own.

“Most of these House members will never meet President Obama in their lives,” said Larry Puccio, state Democratic Party chairman.

Republicans say West Virginia is on the same path as some southern states, like Alabama, Arkansas and Tennessee, that had longtime Democratic Legislatures and flipped. In 2010, Alabama Republicans seized control of both houses from Democrats for the first time since 1874.

“When it happens, it happens rapidly,” said Conrad Lucas, West Virginia Republican Party chairman.

West Virginia Democrats paint themselves as a more conservative brand, fiscally and socially. And many openly admonish the Obama administration for policies that could hinder the state’s revered coal industry, like environmental rules limiting carbon pollution from power plants.

HouseDemocrats advocated some issues hardly indicative of liberal policymaking this legislative session. They passed measures to tighten restrictions on abortion, loosen gun laws and keep tax rates steady amid a significant budget shortfall.

Democrats still dominate in sheer numbers. The state has 614,000 registered Democrats versus 351,550 Republicans. Despite struggles in federal elections, Puccio pointed out that Democrats won 67 percent of elections across the state in 2012, in a year where Obama became even more wildly unpopular in West Virginia.

In the 2012 Democratic primary, an inmate in a Texas federal prison drew 41 percent of the vote, compared to Obama’s 59 percent as sitting president. Only Wyoming exudes more disapproval of the president’s job than West Virginia, according to a Gallup poll in January.

“The greatest thing that ever happened to West Virginia Republicans is President Obama getting elected,” said state House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Republicans have fielded a slate of candidates for all 117 legislative districts, including the 17 Senate slots on the ballot this year. Voters in 20 of the House districts pick more than one delegate. In the Senate, where Democrats hold a 24-10 lead over Republicans, voters pick two members per district.

West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Robert Rupp said this cycle could be indicative of a larger shift. West Virginia House races have typically relied on retail politics - based more on personalities and knowing the candidate, less on sweeping policy ideas. That could change, he said.

“The question is, will they vote for the candidate they know on a retail, personal level,” Rupp said, “or will they vote on their dissatisfaction with the Obama administration?”

Miley, the Democratic speaker, said election-year influence played a role this year in passing a ban on abortions after 20 weeks gestation. A similar law in Arizona was struck down in court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. Both legislative chambers passed the ban overwhelmingly, and it awaits Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s final say.

Miley voted for the bill, but said upon further research, he’s not sure it’s constitutional. Delegates voted how they thought their constituents stood on the issue, Miley said. Opposing Democrats said constituents were bombarded with robo-calls calling their lawmakers “baby killers.” Democrats expect more negative messaging with outside money to saturate the state.

Americans for Prosperity, an ad-buying tea party group funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, opened a West Virginia office in January. And the Republican National Committee is interested in contributing in West Virginia, said Lucas, the state GOP chairman.

“They are interested in all our races everywhere,” Lucas said of the Republican National Committee. “The Legislature is absolutely mentioned in the very first sentence.”

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