There seems to be a slightly growing underground sentiment that it is not worth running a serious Republican candidate against likely Democratic candidate Gov. Joe Manchin in the likely special election to fill the Senate seat of the late Robert Byrd. A Rasmussen poll showing Manchin leading Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) 53-39 would seem, according to this sentiment, to be proof of the folly against running against Manchin.
It seems to me that it would be a considerable strategic blunder for Republicans not to contest this seat. West Virginia is hugely favorable territory for a Republican pick-up. Republican presidential candidates have won the state for the last three presidential elections; Bush and McCain each won it by about 13 points in 2004 and 2008, respectively. Though West Virginia has a long tradition of supporting Democrats, and Democrats still dominate in many state and local offices, the state is deeply dissatisfied with the current status quo in Washington, DC. Obama's approval rating? 35%, according to multiple polling outfits.
It's true that Manchin is hugely popular in West Virginia, but he can still be tied to the national Democratic party. While his approval rating sits at the sky-high value of 80%, he at the moment seems only able to muster 53% against Capito. This number suggests that voters are capable of approving of him as governor without backing him for Senate. A Republican candidate for Senate could build on that sentiment.
And health-care is definitely an electoral albatross that Republicans can hang around his neck. 67% of West Virginia voters want health-care "reform" repealed. In March of 2010, Manchin indicated that he supported passing Obamacare. He will no doubt try to run away from that position now by emphasizing his various objections to the health-care bill, but the fact of the matter is that, at the end of the day, he supported passing a bill that 67% of WV voters now want repealed. He is also on record as being very open to a "public option."
Let's look again at the 53-39 match-up of Manchin and Capito. First of all, that's only a 14-point deficit for the Republican. Manchin's lead is hardly insurmountable; consider how much races in California, Florida, Massachusetts, etc. have swung around in the polling. Secondly, he's pulling this lead against a member of Congress whose district only encompasses about a third of the state's voters. Manchin starts off with a much higher public profile, but he's not exactly running away with this race. Capito has plenty of space for her candidacy to grow. She has a 59% approval rating, with 8% of voters being unsure about her. Opinion about Capito does not seem fixed on a statewide level. Only 11% of voters view her very unfavorably; 23% view her somewhat unfavorably, so she could probably push some of those voters over into the favorable column.
In the probable election to come, Manchin will try to dance away from the Obama agenda (citing his objections to cap-and-trade, etc.). But Republicans can tie him to this agenda. The passage of the health-care bill was just one instance of supposedly "independent" Democrats marching to the White House's tune; every single Democrat in the Senate voted for Obamacare.
If the GOP is serious about retaking the Senate, it needs to put serious effort into every single seat that has even the remotest potential of flipping. West Virginia is no place to surrender before the fight begins.