Sabato's Crystal Ball

Notes on the State of Politics

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball April 22nd, 2015

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West Virginia governor: Manchin’s choice makes Republicans a narrow favorite

After months of hinting that he might prefer to return home to run for a third term as governor, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) decided to stay put in the Senate. That creates an open seat in the Mountain State — Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) cannot run again — and there are many potential candidates on both sides. Ultimately, West Virginia’s movement toward the GOP in recent elections suggests that the Republicans should start this race with a small edge, so we’re moving West Virginia’s gubernatorial contest from Toss-up to Leans Republican.

While Democrats have suffered setbacks all over the country during President Obama’s time in office — historically, that’s a regular price a party pays for holding the White House (though it’s been particularly rough for Obama) — the party’s losses in West Virginia are amongst the worst in the country since 2009.

In 2012 Obama got just 35.5% of the vote in the state — the worst performance for a Democratic presidential nominee in West Virginia since George McClellan (D) versus Abraham Lincoln (R) in 1864, which was the first election held in the new state after it had broken away from Virginia in protest against secession during the Civil War. However, the state was clearly trending toward Republicans at the presidential level before Obama: Al Gore and John Kerry both lost it in their elections and ran worse there than they did nationally. This was noteworthy because in West Virginia, Democratic presidential candidates routinely outperformed their national percentage going back decades. For instance, West Virginia was one of only four states — Hawaii, Minnesota, and Rhode Island were the others, along with the District of Columbia — to back both Jimmy Carter in his 1980 landslide reelection defeat and Michael Dukakis in his decisive loss to George H.W. Bush in 1988.

And now that Republican trend is bleeding down-ballot, in remarkable fashion.

Going into the 2010 midterms — the first conducted under Obama — West Virginia’s state House of Delegates was 71-29 Democratic, and its state Senate was 26-8 Democratic. Democrats controlled both U.S. Senate seats, and two of three U.S. House seats.

In a dramatic turnaround, Republicans now hold all three House seats, one of the two Senate seats (Manchin has the other), a 64-36 edge in the House of Delegates, and an 18-16 advantage in the state Senate.

Democrats retain five of the six statewide executive offices elected in 2012, including Tomblin in the governorship, but that year Republicans won the attorney general’s post, when Patrick Morrisey (R) defeated long-time incumbent Darrell McGraw (D).

Morrisey is a potential gubernatorial candidate, as is Rep. David McKinley (R, WV-1) and state Senate President Bill Cole (R). The top Democratic possibility appears to be U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin (D), our sources say. Goodwin is the cousin of Carte Goodwin (D), whom Manchin appointed as a placeholder to the Senate seat he now occupies following the death of Sen. Robert Byrd (D) in 2010. State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D) is already running, and Jim Justice, the wealthy owner of the Greenbrier resort, could also run, among others. The party retains a fairly deep bench even as its power has faded in recent elections.

Democrats will argue that this race should be a toss-up, and perhaps when the dust settles and the candidates emerge, they will be proven right. Also, they might argue that Hillary Clinton, who destroyed Obama in the 2008 Mountain State Democratic primary, will do better in the presidential race than Obama did, which will help Democrats down the ballot. She probably will do better, but not by as much as many Democrats currently think. Democrats have been fading all over Appalachia, a dynamic we explored in a recent piece about neighboring Ohio. The only polling we could find matching Clinton against the Republican contenders was a Public Policy Polling survey from 2013 — for what it’s worth (not much because it is so dated), Clinton trailed all the Republicans by three to 14 points.

West Virginia hasn’t elected a GOP governor since Cecil Underwood in 1996, so one might argue the state is due to elect a Republican, especially given recent political trends. Tomblin himself had two close elections against Bill Maloney (R) in the 2011 special election to finish Manchin’s term — Tomblin was “acting” governor before that so he was technically the incumbent — and in a 2012 rematch, so the state showed some willingness to back a GOP chief executive in the two most recent elections.

With Manchin out of the race, the Republicans have a golden opportunity to add to their already impressive collection of state governorships (currently 31 of 50).

Meanwhile, Manchin’s decision is a substantial break for Senate Democrats. Had he been elected governor, they would have had serious trouble holding his Senate seat. Even Manchin will have to fight hard for reelection but he retains strong favorability ratings in the state despite its turn to the Republicans.

Table 1: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change

House: Capps’ retirement puts her seat in play

A couple of weeks ago, Rep. Lois Capps (D, CA-24) announced her retirement. At the time, we announced a ratings change on Twitter, moving the open seat contest from Likely Democratic to Leans Democratic, but we didn’t get a chance to explain the move in detail.

The Crystal Ball can confirm, through personal examination, that CA-24 contains some of the loveliest real estate in the country, including the cities of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo. Following redistricting in 2011, the district became less Democratic, although it still leans that way: Obama won 54% of the vote, so it was about three points more Democratic than the nation as a whole in 2012, but about six points less Democratic than California itself. Capps had two credible challenges under the new lines: She defeated former Lt. Gov. Abel Maldonado (R) by 10 points in 2012, and won by a more modest four points over Chris Mitchum (R), the son of acting legend Robert Mitchum, last year.

Capps’ experience the past two cycles helps represent a larger California trend: there is Democratic overperformance in presidential years and underperformance in midterm ones. So her retirement is well-timed for her party because 2016 is a presidential year.

Capps won the seat in a special election in 1998 after her husband, Walter, died of a heart attack during his first term. In another nod to dynasty, it’s possible that a third straight Capps will win the seat: Capps’ daughter, political consultant Laura Capps, is a possible contender for the seat. Santa Barbara County Supervisor Salud Carbajal and Santa Barbara Mayor Helene Schneider are already running on the Democratic side, as is campaign finance advocate Bill Ostrander, who is the least likely to win the seat. The Republican candidates so far are Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian and businessman Justin Fareed, who finished behind Mitchum in the 2014 all-party top-two primary.

A race with two credible Republicans and three or more credible Democrats could lead to two Republicans advancing to the general election, which happened in CA-31, an even more Democratic district, in 2012 (Democrats narrowly avoided a repeat in 2014 and now hold the seat). And the district is competitive enough that a good Republican candidate could hypothetically win it against a Democrat in the general election anyway. So that’s why we’re calling the race just Leans Democratic.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings change

What Obama’s approval means to Clinton

We wanted to make sure Crystal Ball readers saw our latest piece in Politico Magazine. Larry J. Sabato, Geoffrey Skelley, and I looked at the importance of President Obama’s approval rating to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and we also described how Obama is doing worse than one might expect in a number of key states. To check out the column, click here.