Obama’s unpopularity hands the GOP an opening in West Virginia

Holly Bailey
The Upshot

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is one of the most popular politicians in the country, boasting a near 60 percent approval rating in his home state. But that popularity hasn't helped the Democratic governor's bid to succeed the late Sen. Robert Byrd in the Senate, as voter discontent with President Obama and his policies threatens to sink the Dems' hopes in the race.

The shift in West Virginia is significant, since tea-party insurgent Christine O'Donnell's decisive upset win in the GOP Delaware Senate primary had many pundits and prognosticators downplaying the prospect of a Republican takeover of the Senate. Polls show O'Donnell trailing her Demcratic opponent, Chris Coons, by as much as 15 percent. But if Republicans swing an unexpected pickup in the contest for Byrd's former seat, the Senate could be back in play for them.

A new Public Policy Polling survey finds Manchin has lost his lead for the first time in the race against Republican John Raese. The mining company executive now has a 3-point advantage over Manchin in a Senate contest that was once heavily favored for the Democrats. According to PPP, Raese now leads Manchin 46 percent to 43 percent, a result just within the poll's margin of error. Ten percent of voters are still undecided in the race.

Why is Manchin in so much trouble? Perhaps no other state in the country has soured more on Obama and Democrats in Washington. Obama's approval rating is at just 30 percent in the state—one of the lowest numbers in the country. Among West Virginia Democrats, who tend to be more conservative than the national norm, just 51 percent approve of the job Obama is doing. Among independents, Obama's disapproval rating is at 73 percent.

There's one main source behind the president's tanking numbers in the state: the huge unpopularity of Obama's health care plan. According to the poll, 63 percent of the state disapproves of the health care overhaul, including 40 percent of Democrats. More than a third of Democrats in the state think the national party has gotten "too liberal"—and as a result, nearly a quarter of likely Democratic voters are now supporting Raese in the Senate contest. The GOP nominee also leads among self-described independents, 56 percent to Manchin's 30 percent.

The contest is still virtually tied, so Manchin's not out of the running yet. But with just 41 days until Election Day, the Democrat is facing some very dismal numbers. More than half of voters in the state think Republicans should win control of Congress, with nearly a quarter of Democrats saying they'd like to see a change in Washington.

Still, 52 percent of voters in the state say they'd like to see Byrd's legacy in the Senate continued—a sign that Manchin still has a shot.

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)