Fourteen-term incumbent Alan Mollohan was defeated in the Democratic primary in West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District last night, losing 56-44 to state senator Mike Oliverio. Turnout was moderate — about 66,000 voters; by way of comparison, about 111,000 voters turned out in WV-1 in 2008 when Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly defeated Barack Obama in the state’s Presidential primary.
Although this race had frankly not been on our radar screen, Mollohan’s defeat did not come out of the blue. Mollohan and Oliverio’s camps had released dueling polls each showing themselves ahead in the primary, and around $1 million was spent between them — a large sum for a House primary in a district with cheap television markets.
The causes for Mollohan’s defeat are somewhat overdetermined. On the one hand, he has often been the subject of corruption allegations, which Oliverio emphasized. But Oliverio also ran to Mollohan’s right on policy issues, criticizing him for his support of health care reform and for not opposing cap-and-trade fiercely enough (although Mollohan ultimately voted against it.)
In addition, obviously, there is significant anti-incumbent sentiment within the country which seems to cross all political boundaries. While Mollohan lost to a challenge from his right — not incredibly shocking in a state where just 34 percent of the Democratic primary electorate describes itself as liberal — incumbents of all kinds are having problems:
— Republican Senator Bob Bennett was eliminated at Utah’s nominating convention last week by Tea Party-supported candidates.
— Also in Utah, Democratic Rep. Jim Matheson was forced into a primary after delegates gave 45 percent of their votes to Claudia Wright, a retired schoolteacher who ran sharply to his left.
— Arlen Specter appears more likely than not to lose to Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania next week. Sestak has made a point of running to Specter’s left, although polling indicates ambiguous patterns of preferences according to voter ideology. (In Rasmussen’s cross-tabs [gated], Sestak leads 56-39 among liberal primary voters but also 51-38 among conservatives; Specter leads 46-37 among self-described moderates.)
— John McCain, having released this strange ad, seems to be nervous about his position in Arizona, where J.D. Hayworth is challenging him and has been close in some polls.
We scarcely need to mention, of course, how many Democratic incumbents are liable to lose their general election bids.
Regardless of its national implications, this is a costly loss for Democrats. Although Mollohan voted against the Democrats on cap-and-trade — a yea vote is nearly untenable in Coal Country — and was a member of the Stupak Bloc, he voted with the Democrats on essentially all other key issues and rated as the 8th-most valuable Democrat overall, considering the conservativeness of his district. Oliverio, by contrast, seems opposed to the Democrats on nearly every issue, and has even hedged on whether or not he’d support Nancy Pelosi for Speaker. He is basically riding on the coattails of the Democratic brand, which is still powerful in West Virginia even though the state has long been conservative on social issues and is increasingly becoming so on economic ones. National Democrats have virtually no reason to support him in the general election, which should probably be regarded as a toss-up in the absence of polling.