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Local pundits assess West Virginia's changing political climate (The State Journal)

10/2/2017

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — Political experts don’t know exactly which way West Virginia’s political winds will blow in upcoming elections, but they’re certain the state’s political climate is changing.

“West Virginia is now a deeply red state,” said pollster Rex Repass, who conducts the periodic West Virginia Poll for statewide media.

Repass was one of three panelists to discuss the state’s changing politics at the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting and business summit last month.

In August, Repass conducted a poll of about 400 West Virginians to try to gauge their opinions on political matters. What he found was that support for several key political figures appears to be slipping in the state.

According to the poll results, support for President Donald Trump in West Virginia has dropped from 60 percent to 48 percent. “A lot has happened in six months, but the president still is popular in the state,” Repass said.

Support for U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., has dropped from 50 percent to 40 percent, Repass said, while the approval rating for Gov. Jim Justice has fallen to 34 percent, the poll results suggest.

Repass cautioned, however, that the results may have something to do with the timing of the poll.

Repass said the poll was conducted not long after Trump’s controversial comments in the wake of violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the president was seen by some as waffling on whether white supremacists should bear the brunt of the blame for the incidents. Repass suggested the drop in Capito’s popularity may be connected with what many saw as her reversing herself on a vow not to vote for any Obamacare repeal bill that did not have a replacement plan in place.

The poll also was conducted not long after Justice switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican, which may have affected his popularity numbers, Repass suggested.

But Repass said support for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. — seen by some Democrats as too conservative and quick to compromise and by some Republicans as too liberal — has actually been creeping up over the years. Manchin’s approval rating stands at 51 percent, the poll suggests.

Repass’ poll results show Manchin with a likely 10-point lead over one challenger, current Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., in the 2018 election, and a likely 14-point lead over state Attorney General Patrick Morissey. But Repass cautioned a lot could change before the election and said recent Republican sweeps of Congress and the state Legislature could hurt Manchin.

Brian Dayton, communications director for the state Chamber of Commerce, said the race for Manchin’s seat will probably be the most closely watched contest in the country. With Justice now identifying as a Republican, Dayton said Manchin could face a tough time at the polls.

Manchin’s U.S. Senate seat is far from the only contested race that will be in play in 2018. Dayton said West Virginia’s political landscape changed overnight with the 2014 election, and Republicans picked up even more seats in the 2016 election.

“What’s at stake” in 2018, Dayton asked? Up for grabs in the 2018 election will be Manchin’s seat in the U.S. Senate, three congressional seats, 17 of 34 seats in the West Virginia Senate and all 100 seats in the House of Delegates.

Bill Bissett, president of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, likened elections to boxing matches, with much of the same type of drama and showmanship. As such, Bissett conducted his own unofficial poll of 100 political observers and tried to get a feel for candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

The consensus, Bissett suggested, was that Manchin is a likable guy: “People want to have a beer with him.” Manchin is also seen as moderate, Bissett said.

But Manchin’s ties to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and his perceived flip-flops on issues could be seen as weaknesses, Bissett said.

Jenkins, too, is perceived as likable, Bissett said, and is a strong campaigner. But some may see him as too loyal to a strict GOP platform, and some will be turned off because Jenkins switched party affiliation from Democrat to Republican.

Morrisey, the other likely challenger to Manchin, has been an aggressive and successful attorney general, Bissett said. But some voters may find him too aggressive, and, as a non-native, Morrisey may be seen as an outsider, Bissett said.

Who does Bissett think will win?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think anyone knows yet. There are too many variables. Sen. Manchin will be very hard to beat. But he can be beaten.”

Staff writer Rusty Marks can be reached at 304-415-1480 or email at rmarks@statejournal.com.

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