By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia voters on Tuesday re-elected U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, both Democrats, even as they rejected President Barack Obama’s bid for a second term and considered a lengthy ballot that also features a slew of legislative posts and a proposed constitutional amendment.
Though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2-1 in West Virginia, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney easily won the five electoral votes in the state where Obama suffers some of his lowest approval ratings.
In other races, Republican candidates worked to link Democratic incumbents to the unpopular president. They also threatened the Democrats’ majority in the House of Delegates.
Republican John Raese made Obama a big part of his campaign against Manchin for a full six-year term in the Senate. Manchin was governor when he defeated Raese, a Morgantown multimillionaire and industrialist, in a 2010 special election prompted by the death of U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
Manchin said whoever wins the presidency must work to unite the nation. He proposed a 50-state healing tour, inviting the winner to come to West Virginia first.
“I’m just so committed to that. We just need to reach out,” Manchin told The Associated Press. “Forget about our party politics. Start thinking about our future.”
Tomblin’s GOP opponent, Bill Maloney, also invoked Obama while blaming the incumbent for the state’s chronically poor rankings in economic and education categories. Their race marked another rematch. Tomblin was Senate president acting as governor following Manchin’s departure when he narrowly beat Maloney in a special election last October.
In the bitterly fought governor’s race, Tomblin cited how the state weathered the Great Recession and fragile recovery under his leadership. Maloney, a Morgantown drilling consultant and business owner, accused Tomblin of prospering at taxpayer expense.
“The people of West Virginia appreciate the experience, the fiscal responsibility that we’ve shown, the good financial planning,” Tomblin told The Associated Press. “We plan to continue to move forward along that same path and to continue to be responsible with the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Though parts of the state are still recovering from the punishing snows and power outages inflicted by Superstorm Sandy, the sun was shining Tuesday and voters appeared undeterred in Preston County, one of the hardest-hit.
At the Bolyard Funeral Home in Newburg, designated an emergency polling place, Cheryl Engle was ready to clean house at the top of the ballot. She voted for Romney, Raese and Maloney.
“I want Obama out,” said Engle, 59, of nearby Independence. “He’s just not taking us in the right direction.”
The GOP’s Obama strategy also extended to other races, including the one for attorney general. Republican Patrick Morrisey, an Eastern Panhandle lawyer who previously worked on Capitol Hill, won over Attorney General Darrell McGraw. The Democrat has found himself outspent by Morrisey and pro-GOP allies who have flooded the state with TV ads.
Democrats held onto the other four statewide executive offices. Treasurer John Perdue bested Mike Hall, the Senate’s minority leader. Freshman Delegate Brian Savilla, like Hall a Putnam County Republican, was soundly defeated by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant in her quest for a second term. Larry Faircloth, a former veteran GOP legislator, similarly fell short against Auditor Glen Gainer.
Sen. Walt Helmick, a Democrat, overcame Republican Kent Leonhardt to succeed retiring Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass.
Voters also awarded a pair of 12-year terms on the five-seat Supreme Court of Appeals. Justice Robin Davis, a Democrat, won re-election and was joined by Republican Allen Loughry, a longtime lawyer at the court. They outpaced Democrat Tish Chafin, a recent State Bar president, and Circuit Judge John Yoder, a Republican.
All three of West Virginia’s incumbents in the U.S. House of Representatives prevailed. Freshman U.S. Rep. David McKinley defeated a low-funded Democratic challenger, Sue Thorn, in the 1st District. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito won a seventh term in the 2nd District, where Howard Swint was the Democrats’ nominee. Both incumbents are Republicans, as is freshman Delegate Rick Snuffer. The Raleigh County legislator is challenging 3rd District Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat seeking a 19th term.
Democrats hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, but Republicans nearly erased their 15-seat margin in the House of Delegates.
With all 100 seats up for election, at least six Democratic incumbents fell to Republicans on Tuesday. Delegate Ron Fragale, D-Harrison and the House’s president pro tempore, lost to Danny Hamrick. Delegate Stan Shaver was defeated by Randy Smith in Preston County, while Joshua Nelson unseated Delegate Larry Barker in Boone County. Delegate Helen Martin lost her Putnam County seat to Scott Cadle. In a redrawn, four-seat district representing Kanawha County, Suzette Raines and John McCuskey displaced Delegates Bobbie Hatfield and Bonnie Brown.
Republicans also captured another four open seats held by retiring Democrats: George “Boogie” Ambler of Greenbrier County, Roy Cooper of Summers County, John Shott of Mercer County and David Evans of Marshall County. Former GOP Delegate Cindy Frich, meanwhile, will return to the House, after winning a new seat added to Monongalia County.
But GOP Delegate Walter Duke fell to Democrat Jason Barrett in a Berkeley County House district.
With half of the 34-member Senate on the ballot, the GOP failed to field challengers to seven of the 11 incumbent Democrats running. Republican auto dealer Bill Cole won in a district dominated by Mercer County, upsetting Democratic Sen. Mark Wills. Another Republican, Chris Walters, bested Democrat Joshua Martin for a redrawn Senate seat representing Kanawha and Putnam counties that had been held by a Democrat.
Voters also rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would repeal term limits for county sheriffs. While requiring a simple majority, previous attempts also failed in 1994, 1986 and 1982.