The Biggest Challenge for a West Virginia Democrat? Obama

With President Obama’s approval ratings at near-record lows, and the White House lurching from one crisis to the other lately, the last thing Democrats want in a Senate candidate is a political clone of the president.

That’s not a problem for the party in West Virginia, at least.

After all, if there’s such a thing as a Democratic “anti-Obama,” Natalie Tennant, the Democratic nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller this fall, is about as close as you could get, her allies say.

Democrats point to the two-term West Virginia secretary of state’s positions on a number of high-profile issues as proof she would be no rubber stamp for Obama.

She’s “pro-coal,” long the lifeblood of West Virginia’s economy, and has vowed to bring more coal-related jobs to the state, if elected. What’s more, she opposes Obama’s recently announced emissions reduction plan that trade groups say would be devastating to coal companies, miners and consumers.

Tennant also is a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment, and is against additional gun regulations like the proposed federal firearms registry.

And she’s hardly a fan of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare law known as Obamacare. While she hasn’t called for its outright repeal, she says the law is flawed and needs a serious makeover.

Tennant’s conservative streak, party leaders say, strikes the right balance in a state that’s become increasingly conservative — but where registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin.

So why, then, has Tennant consistently trailed her opponent, GOP nominee and U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, by as many as 11 percentage points in most polls?

Two reasons, political analysts say.

The first goes back to that abrupt ideological shift the state has made to the right in recent years. Although its voters have always been fiercely independent and far from liberal, the Mountain State for years was one that Democrats could count on in national elections. But that began to change in the 1990s. With 52 percent of the vote in 1996, Bill Clinton was the last Democratic presidential candidate to win West Virginia. In the four elections since then, the GOP nominee has not only won, but has earned an increasingly larger share of the vote each time. George W. Bush got 52 and 56 percent, respectively, in 2000 and 2004; John McCain received just over 56 percent in 2008, and in 2012, the Republican share soared.

“It’s increasingly hard to see a Democrat winning a statewide race in a state where Mitt Romney got 62 percent of the vote,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst with the University of Virginia. “That’s not to say it can’t happen.”

Indeed, as Skelley points out, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, easily won re-election on the very same day Romney trounced Obama in the state.

But Skelly says it would be a mistake to read too much into Manchin’s victory.

“Personally popular politicians like Manchin have been able to overcome this shift [to the right],” Skelly said. “But unlike some previous statewide GOP nominees, Capito is a very strong candidate who will have no trouble raising money or appealing to voters.”

Raising money certainly hasn’t been a problem so far for Capito. She has raised some $4.3 million to Tennant’s $1.7 million, and has more than four times the amount of cash on hand as the Democrat.

Capito, the daughter of former three-term Republican governor Arch Moore, also has “the moderate-conservative profile to not scare off less fervently conservative voters,” Skelly said.

And despite Tennant’s moderate positions on key issues, she is nonetheless tied to a national party that’s generally not well-regarded by West Virginia voters.

“The Democratic Party is seen as fundamentally at odds with many important aspects of Mountain State life,” Skelly said. “It is seen as anti-coal, anti-gun, and anti-traditional values.”

And that, in turn, has a lot to do with the second reason Tennant is trailing Capito. In a word, Obama.

“The biggest issues at play in this race all connect to President Obama and his administration,” Skelly said. “To have any chance, Tennant has to successfully run away from the president on a number of issues, whether it be coal or guns.”

That’s clearly part of Tennant’s game plan. But even if she is successful at touting her reputation as a moderate voice who vows to stand up to Obama, she also must overcome the disdain voters have with her party.

“She has to make a compelling argument to moderate-conservative voters who have traditionally voted Democratic to not stray from the party in a federal election,” Skelly said.