Senate: Mixing Apples and Oranges in West Virginia

by Stuart Rothenberg March 25, 2013 · 9:30 AM EDT

Hoping to hang on to retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s open seat, Democratic strategists are passing the word that attorney and energy company executive Nick Preservati is looking closely at the 2014 Senate contest in West Virginia.

National Journal’s Hotline on Call describes the possible Democratic candidate as “a wealthy, pro-coal, pro-business Democrat in the style of Sen. Joe Manchin,” the state’s junior senator who is best known for his opposition to the Obama “cap and trade” plan and his support for gun owners’ rights.

I know nothing more than that about Preservati, and he could turn out to be an interesting option for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which, after all, would be happy to have a fighting chance to hold the Senate seat in next year’s midterm elections.

But there are lots of reasons to be skeptical, at least at this point. Here are just two.

First, Democrats have the same problems in West Virginia these days that Republicans have in Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Hawaii. It is called partisanship.

Preservati may be a “pro-coal, pro-business Democrat,” but voters in the Mountain State know — or will know, after Republicans have their say — that the Democratic Senate majority is neither and that sending Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., another member won’t do much to improve coal’s standing with the White House or in the environmental movement, which remains very close to the national Democratic Party.

For every Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., there are 10 Linda Lingles and Mike Sullivans, attractive candidates from the “wrong” party. Lingle, a Republican, lost last cycle in Hawaii, while Sullivan, a Democrat, lost in Wyoming in 1994. Each had been a popular governor.

Second, Preservati may be “in the style” of Manchin, but he isn’t Manchin and hasn’t had the decades in elective office (and name identification) and record of political independence that the senator has had.

In this case, a Democrat with a blank slate is better than an avowedly liberal Democrat, but it isn’t nearly as good as a Democrat with 30 years of public service and a reputation as a moderate.

As far as I know, Preservati has never held elected office. Manchin, on the other hand, was elected to the West Virginia House in 1982 and to the state Senate four years later. He was elected secretary of state in 2000 and governor in 2004. Four years later, he was re-elected to a second term as the state’s chief executive.

In 2010, then-Gov. Manchin won election to the U.S. Senate to fill the remainder of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd’s term, and in 2012 he won a six-year term.

State voters know Manchin. They like Manchin. They trust Manchin. They even trust Manchin to go to Washington, D.C., and rub shoulders with Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.; Christopher S. Murphy, D-Conn.; Bernard Sanders, I-Vt.; Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.; Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.; and Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. But in West Virginia, Manchin is awfully close to being unique.

In other words, a Democratic political newcomer won’t get the benefit of the doubt that Manchin will — or even that veteran Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the all-but-certain GOP nominee — will get. And that is why, although the Senate race certainly is worth watching at this point, Democratic optimism should be very guarded.