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West Virginia Poses Dilemma for Democrats: Must-Win or No-Win?

Megan Liberman and I talked about the horse-race aspects of West Virginia in today’s TimesCast: suffice it to say that, from an electoral perspective, it’s as important a state as any in terms of Democrats’ ability to hold the Senate.

But — although it’s easy to forget it this time of year — winning elections is, in theory, just a means to an end, the end being the ability to affect public policy. And this is where the Democrats’ nominee in West Virginia, Gov. Joe Manchin III, poses problems for them.

Even though West Virginia voted Democrat for president 14 out of 17 times from 1932 to 1996, it was never some bastion of liberalism. Instead, Democrats would accept defections from the state’s elected officials on some issues — like social and environmental policy — in exchange for party-line voting on economic affairs, and matters like labor organizing rights.

It’s not surprising, then, that a Democrat like Mr. Manchin opposes abortion, gun control and gay marriage, and is shooting bullet holes, literally, in the Democrats’ cap-and-trade bill, which might create problems for West Virginia’s coal-based economy. Mr. Manchin knows his state (and he looks a heck of a lot better sporting a gun than, say, Michael Dukakis looked in a tank).

What ought to be more disturbing to Democrats, however, is that Mr. Manchin is also abandoning them on bread-and-butter economic issues — the kind on which West Virginia Democrats once showed their blue stripes. Mr. Manchin — who once said he would have voted for the president’s health care bill — continues to distance himself from what he now calls “Obamacare,” threatening to support its repeal. In one of the nation’s poorest states, Mr. Manchin has expressed support for extending the Bush-era tax cuts to high-income earners. In one of nation’s most heavily unionized states, he has declined to support a key provision in the Employee Free Choice Act, which would ease union organizing.

Mr. Manchin’s incentives are transparent: President Obama performed poorly in West Virginia in 2008, and he certainly has become no more popular there since. A Public Policy Polling survey put Mr. Obama’s approval at 30 percent among likely voters in West Virginia — and just as important, found that the substantial number of voters who both like Mr. Manchin and dislike Mr. Obama were inclined to vote for Mr. Manchin’s Republican opponent, John Raese. Thus, the rule for Mr. Manchin seems to be to pick a policy that the president supports and oppose it.

Perhaps, some Democrats hope, Mr. Manchin could pivot to the left — or at least the center — after winning the election. The state’s senior senator, John D. Rockefeller IV, is a Democrat who has had little trouble winning re-election, much like the state’s former senior senator, the late Robert C. Byrd.

However, because Mr. Manchin is competing for the last two years of Mr. Byrd’s term, he will essentially be in re-election mode as soon as he wins, if he wins. It is more likely than not that the overall political environment will be better for Democrats in 2012 than it is now — but this may not hold in West Virginia, where Mr. Obama’s presence on the ballot in a presidential year could motivate conservative and Republican turnout in the state’s Senate race.

Can Democrats count on a Senator Manchin to support any of their major policy initiatives in the next Congress? Other than a few votes on things like extending unemployment insurance, it seems unlikely. Nor is Mr. Manchin as senator likely to be held in check by the threat of a primary challenge, which — in a state where even the Democrats are quite conservative — would be a long shot.

All of which raises the question: how much fiscal support should Mr. Manchin expect to get from groups like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which is scrambling to rally around him in a state that wasn’t even scheduled to have a Senate election until July?

Currently, we show there being nine Senate races in which each party has at least a 10 percent chance of victory. In addition to West Virginia, these are the races in Wisconsin, Washington, California, Nevada, Illinois, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Colorado.

In each of these other states, there is abundant ideological daylight between the Democrat and his opponent. In some of them, like Illinois and California, the Republican is fairly moderate, but the Democrat is very liberal. In others, like Kentucky, the Democrat runs to the center-left, but the Republican is very conservative.

In an effort to be a bit more rigorous about this, I took the Democratic and Republican candidates in each of these states and assigned them ratings from -2 (liberal) to +2 (conservative) on each of five issues — fiscal policy (i.e. taxes and spending), social policy (abortion and gay rights), energy policy, immigration, and health care — based on their public statements and public votes. A down-the-line liberal, like Alexi Giannoulias of Illinois, would receive a rating of -10; a staunch conservative, like Sharron Angle of Nevada, would get a +10. A score of 0 indicates a centrist.

When I assigned ratings to Mr. Manchin, he came out at a +3.5 — meaning, that I’d expect him to be somewhat to the right of center over all, based on the positions he has articulated recently. Although I rated Mr. Raese as being a +9 — more conservative than Mr. Manchin — the 5.5 point difference between the candidates was only about half as large as in any other state.

Looked at this way, a win by Mr. Manchin might be only half as helpful to Democrats from a policy standpoint as one in a state like New Hampshire might — and the difference is greater still as compared to a state like Wisconsin, where there is a distinctly liberal (albeit unorthodox) Democrat in Russ Feingold running against a fairly conservative Republican in Ron Johnson. And Democrats would only be buying two years of Mr. Manchin’s time rather than six, since he’d be on the ballot again in 2012.

Of course, there are other factors that would argue for putting money into West Virginia: it’s an extremely cheap state to advertise in, so the return on investment may be fairly high. And two of the state’s three House districts, where the Democrats could get a boost from Mr. Manchin’s coattails, are competitive.

Still, Mr. Manchin is increasingly looking like a candidate who might be no easier for Democrats to live with than without.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.