Wheeling, W.Va. In 1863, West Virginia became the 35th state by seceding from some secessionists: 50 counties, with few slaves, left Virginia, almost all of which have seams of coal. Barack Obama has a remarkable hostility to coal. For example, in 2008 he said: “If somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can; it’s just that it will bankrupt them because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
Hillary Clinton trounced Obama 67-26 in West Virginia’s primary. John McCain beat Obama here by 13 points — a bigger margin than he had in eight of the other 21 states he carried. Obama lost only 13 states by a larger margin than he lost here. So pity Gov. Joe Manchin.
He is seeking the Senate seat held for 51 years by another Democrat, the late Robert Byrd. Manchin has the endorsement of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association. He favors extension of the Bush tax cuts. He opposes abortion, same-sex marriage and “card check” (abolition of secret ballots in unionization elections). He says he would have voted against Obamacare. He is suing the Environmental Protection Agency against restrictions on mountaintop mining and he denounces “President Obama’s administration’s attempts to destroy our coal industry and way of life in West Virginia.” But because Obama is the head of Manchin’s party, the governor, 63, may lose to someone who has hitherto lost two Senate races.
“I am running against Obama,” says John Raese. He lost by just four points in 1984 when Jay Rockefeller won the first of his five Senate terms. In 2006, Raese unsuccessfully challenged Byrd. But this year, when many Democratic incumbents are in jeopardy because they are unpopular, Manchin is burdened by popularity.
Raese’s political jujitsu is obvious and obviously helping him. In 2008, Manchin was elected with 70 percent of the vote. Almost 70 percent of West Virginians approve his performance as governor. But fewer than half that many approve of Obama. So Raese tells West Virginians that voting for him is win-win: You keep the governor you like and deny another conscript for the multitentacled Washington blob known in Republican rhetoric as ObamaReidPelosi.
Raese, 60, is trim, tanned, gray-haired and radiates the confidence of a multifaceted businessman. He owns newspapers and radio stations; his barges ply the Ohio River carrying limestone; he manufactures Proctor Silex pots and pans, bumpers for Buicks and shiny metal stuff for Harley-Davidsons. He burns a lot of coal. And he takes what he considers Obama’s anti-business agenda personally.
Channeling his inner John Galt (the Promethean entrepreneur in Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”), Raese insists, “There is nothing wrong with making money.” His audience finds nothing objectionable about that.
Lamenting that “we are in an industrial coma,” he says of the Bush tax cuts, “We’re not going to ‘extend’ them, we’re going to permanentize them.” He laments that there are “no more Oldsmobiles or GTOs” but the government is pushing “little electric cars.” His listeners are not potential buyers of Chevrolet Volts.
In a smoothly delivered and rapturously received canter down memory lane, Raese invokes some names not normally heard in campaign speeches: President Warren Harding (he cut taxes), Jack Webb (star of the TV program “Dragnet,” the last episode of which aired in 1970; Webb died in 1982), Audie Murphy (the most decorated combat soldier in World War II, then star of western movies; he died in 1971). The invasion of Grenada and the Monroe Doctrine also get endorsed. Raese knows his state’s population is almost as old as that of Florida, which is known as God’s Antechamber. His listeners warmly applaud a member of the audience, former Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Bob Friend, 79, who 50 years ago this October was in the World Series.
Warming up an audience which hardly needs that service — Republicans this autumn live at a roiling boil — a speaker at the rally was pleased that ABC’s “World News” recently showed to its national audience a yard sign that says “Obama Says ‘Vote Democrat’” and also says the sign is provided by West Virginia’s Republican Party. The speaker says the state party’s website crashed under the load of people asking for signs. This is just another straw in the wind — the gale, actually — that has filled Raese’s sails and propelled him into a competitive race in what may be the nation’s most thoroughly nationalized contest.
— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group. firstname.lastname@example.org