Once upon a time, not that many years ago, West Virginia Democratic politicians had it pretty easy; Senator Byrd was at the top of the ticket, the Democratic Presidential candidate would always carry the state and three out of every five voters were Democrats.
Today, with the national Democratic Party moving farther to the left, Barack Obama in the White House and declining Democratic voter registration in West Virginia, Democrats running for federal office here try to thread a narrow needle. They carefully parse how being a West Virginia Democrat is different from being a Washington Democrat.
Senator Joe Manchin has done it successfully for two elections, as has Governor Earl Ray Tomblin. West Virginia 3rd District Congressman Nick Rahall managed it in 2012 and will try to do it again in 2014. Nick Casey is trying to find that happy place in his race for the 2nd District Congressional seat.
And based on comments during her announcement yesterday, Natalie Tennant may try to do the same in her run for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate.
“Let me be clear right here, right now,” said Tennant in Beckley. “I disagree with the Obama administration’s policies on coal.”
On Obamacare, Tennant said, according to the AP, that there are parts of the Affordable Care Act that need to be fixed and others that need to be kept.
Those two issues, more than any other, define the new Democratic politician in West Virginia. It’s too early to tell whether Tennant can grab and maintain the middle ground as well as Manchin and Tomblin, as she enters the race against Republican Shelley Moore Capito.
As with any middle position, it’s hard to keep your balance. Capito, the National Republican Party and independent organizations will try to knock Tennant off center by defining her as an Obama liberal.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a release yesterday calling Tennant “too liberal for West Virginia.” Capito campaign manager Chris Hansen said, “Harry Reid and the liberal D.C. Democrats handpicked Natalie Tennant to be their nominee.”
Tennant’s challenge is to define herself before her opponents do, and that’s tough when you have to begin by explaining what you are not. Consider the lead sentence of the AP’s article on Tennant’s announcement:
“West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant kicked off her bid for the U.S. Senate on Tuesday by distancing herself from the Obama Administration’s policies on coal, hoping to blunt one of the Republican Party’s main lines of attack in a state that’s heavily dependent on the coal industry,” the AP wrote.
This is the new balance of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, one that irritates liberals who distress at their own candidates’ umbrage with Obama, but provides a proven pathway to Election Day success.