West Virginia Senate Race Gets Nasty

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, left, actress Jennifer Garner, and owner Jim Justice participate in the ribbon cutting at the grand opening of the Casino Club at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.V. Bryan Bedder / Getty Images

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin's widely circulated ad in which he totes a gun to "take dead aim" at cap and trade has caused quite a stir in his Senate race against Republican businessman John Raese. Raese's site redirects from the main page to a fundraising appeal ("The Target: $100k. October 19th.") mocking Manchin's ham-handed ploy and accusing him of supporting liberal policies. "With a record like this, it's no wonder Rubber Stamp Joe is getting desparate," says Raese's site.

Raese should probably be careful before throwing around accusations of "desperation," though. The latest poll on the race, from Marshall University, shows Manchin to be up by 10 points. (The West Virginia Republican Party disputes the poll results.) Most previous recent polls have shown the race to be a dead heat, but there have been some signs of momentum shifting towards Manchin. Last week Public Polling showed Manchin up by 3 points, whereas a few weeks earlier he had been down by 3 points.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has been throwing the kitchen sink at Manchin. The NRSC is gleefully blasting out media reports showing that Manchin is part owner of a 54-foot yacht currently docked in Florida, and that he has ordered fancy renovations to the governor's mansion such as installation of a whirlpool tub, a wet bar, and 12 flat-screen televisions.

Why would this matter? Because Raese has been under fire from Democrats and labor unions for his own rather comfortable lifestyle, including, most notably, a mansion in Florida where his wife lives. The perception that Raese is an elitist has been bolstered by comments he made about inheriting his wealth and the revelation that an NRSC sponsored ad asked Philadelphia actors playing West Virginians to look "hicky." The NRSC has since severed all ties to the media consulting firm that made the ad. But the wars about the ad wars continue: The state GOP complained that an anti-Raese ad made by the firefighters' union violates state law prohibiting political activities by firefighters. The firefighters' union fired back that State GOP chair Mike Stuart "at best is showing their [sic] ignorance of the law and at worst is telling a lie."

So both candidates stand accused of living a pampered lifestyle and cultural pandering to West Virginians. Perhaps recognizing that the two may cancel each other out and leave voters benumbed, the Manchin campaign is trying to redirect the conversation back to matters of policy substance, in giving the following statement to NEWSWEEK through a spokesperson:

This race has never been about how much money John Raese has, it’s about what his priorities are and how truly out of touch he is with the people of West Virginia and their values.  If he thinks these kinds of stories are going to distract voters from his plan to eliminate the minimum wage, close all public schools, and spend billions to launch lasers into space, then his opinion of West Virginians has not improved since the "hicky" ad. Instead of trying to change the subject, Raese should explain to West Virginians if he believes Medicare and Social Security are constitutional—an explanation he was unable to give in an interview yesterday.

In a state where Walmart is the largest employer, support for eliminating the minimum wage could be a real liability, according to Marybeth Beller, a professor of political science at Marshall. But whether such weighty matters will dominate the debate in West Virginia—as opposed to arguing about whose house is fancier—remains to be seen. The Raese campaign did not respond to a request for comment.