West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin is making his way up Randolph Avenue in the annual Elkins Forest Festival Parade, one of the oldest and largest parades in the Mountain State. Like the natural politician that he is, Manchin zigzags across the street, tossing babies in the air and hugging their mothers. Folks call out, "Hey Joe!" and "Good luck!" "That's the governor!" excited onlookers exclaim. Manchin is unquestionably popular, as he is in much of the state, where he enjoys approval ratings in the high 60s. But about halfway through the festive gathering, he pauses, turning serious, and asks me anxiously, "How do you think it's going?"
Manchin, who has two years left in his second (and final) term in the executive mansion, has good reason to worry. Despite the fact that people love him and the job he's done for West Virginia or perhaps because of it they shudder at the idea of sending him to fill Robert Byrd's Senate seat in Washington. "I voted for Manchin twice and for [President] Obama, but this time I'm thinking I'll vote for John Raese," says Paul Van Devender, 52, a plumber in Elkins and a registered Democrat. "I don't like Obamacare and I don't like Obama. And I don't trust that Manchin won't go over there and help him. Best to keep him here. He's done good here." Manchin's solid record includes cutting taxes, raising teacher salaries and building up a strong rainy-day fund, and yet polls still show Republican Raese, a wealthy businessman and perennial candidate, leading Manchin in a race that could well determine which party ends up controlling the Senate.
Like so many other Democrats this cycle, Manchin has been working hard to prove his independence from Washington (and his own party). In a conveniently timed though Manchin says purely coincidental move, he is suing the Environmental Protection Agency regarding its new regulations on mountaintop coal mining. He's also got a provocative new ad out, titled "Dead Aim," in which he literally shoots a copy of Nancy Pelosi's cap-and-trade bill. "Bottom line is, there's so much fear. They're scared and they're mad, not just here but all over the country," Manchin says in an interview. "I've never seen an ad in my lifetime that says, 'He's doing a great job, so let's keep him home.' I'm termed out. If I could stay, I would've stayed."
About 20 minutes behind Manchin in the Elkins parade is Raese. He should be a lot farther back at the end of the procession, with the other candidates but he snuck up front with floats belonging to the five Elkins radio stations he co-owns. Raese is from a wealthy and powerful West Virginia family his mother was queen of this parade in 1937, a year after Franklin Delano Roosevelt attended the festival at the invitation of Raese's family. Raese owns a steel and limestone business he inherited and co-owns 15 radio stations across the state, as well as the newspaper in his hometown of Morgantown. Still, the crowd hardly knows him as he ambles down the route. "Hi, I'm John Raese, running for U.S. Senate," he bellows, until his voice starts to give out toward the end. He gets a smattering of applause and a few jeers. "Hey, Raese! That a plaid shirt you're wearing?" yells David Bott, 57, a Morgantown Democrat who is voting for Manchin, mocking Raese's "West Virginia costume." More than a few people shake their heads in disapproval, and several wave Manchin bumper stickers at him.
Raese, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 1984 and 2006 and for governor in 1988, is used to this and frankly, this reception is one of the best he's gotten in the state. He knows this race is more against Obama than it is for him. Yet after running more than once on a pro-business, small-government platform, Raese is convinced his time has come. "I truly believe that the Tea Party movement is the best thing that's ever happened to this country," he says in an interview with TIME.
Manchin now says he'd have voted against much of the legislation passed in the past two years, from the stimulus to health care to the climate bill, but Raese hit Manchin this week for his previous statements praising health care reform: "Manchin was for it before he was against it. I find that odd," Raese says. He's also run commercials likening the renewable-energy bill Manchin pushed through the legislature to a cap-and-trade mandate, though even the Coal Association, which has endorsed Manchin, says it supports the measure.
The criticisms have hurt, and Manchin despite having the endorsements of the Chamber of Commerce, the unions, the coal producers, the miners, the National Rifle Association and just about every other organized group in the state is suffering at the polls. Though Manchin led by 16 points in July, Raese now leads by 5, according to an average of polls by Real Clear Politics. The shift has been reflected lately in Manchin's tone, which has gotten much more negative: he has all but accused Raese of being a carpetbagger and an elitist. In particular, Manchin has been trying to link Raese to a now controversial National Republican Senatorial Committee ad that features Philadelphia-based actors portraying, as the casting director reportedly put it, "hicky" West Virginians. Raese's wife and two daughters live in Palm Beach, Fla., where one of Raese's daughters attends a special school because of a learning disability. "I'm running against someone who is not to the core a typical West Virginian, and what I mean by that is, he and his family live in Palm Beach, Fla. a beautiful big mansion. They fly their jets back and forth," Manchin said in an interview in Elkins. "That ad that they're running against me now to have a casting call in the most disparaging way and him not even saying, 'I'm sorry for that happening,' not even apologizing. Not even saying, 'It's wrong.' Not even asking them to take it off the air. It just shows you. Now I know why he lives in Palm Beach, Fla. because he doesn't really want to be here or be part of us, and he's not one of us."
Convincing West Virginia voters that he is one of them, and a world apart from D.C. Democrats, is not a problem for Manchin. But with Raese riding a national GOP wave, the popular governor needs to prove that if elected, he would stand up to his own party as much as Raese would. Voters are also aware that this is only a vote to decide who will finish out the two years remaining on Byrd's term; they might have another opportunity to vote for him in 2012, when he won't be able to serve as governor any longer. (Byrd, the nation's longest-serving Democratic Senator, passed away this year at the age of 92, and Manchin appointed Byrd's former general counsel Carte Goodwin to hold the seat until the November elections.) This would not be without precedent: in 1996 Ben Nelson, then the highly popular governor of Nebraska, ran for an open Senate seat. Voters liked him so much, they elected his opponent, choosing to keep Nelson in Nebraska to finish the last two years of his term; four years later, they sent him to the Senate, where he's been ever since.
And the problem for Democrats is that it's an entirely plausible scenario for voters like Van Devender. "This is my protest vote," he says. "I could see voting for Manchin next time."