Senate race should be tough fight

Look for the West Virginia state Senate race between Democrat incumbent Jack Yost and Republican challenger Ryan Weld to be a knock-down, drag-out battle. Expect the mud slinging to be done by political action committees and others not directly affiliated with the candidates.

Weld referred to that during his announcement last week, saying some people “will do and say anything” in politics.

He and Yost are vying for the Senate seat from the First District, which includes Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties and a large section of northeastern Marshall County. But there’s more at stake than which man represents that district.

In a politically earth-shattering election last fall, Republicans gained control of the House of Delegates for the first time in many decades. They garnered half the Senate seats – then got a majority when, after the election, Sen. Daniel Hall of Wyoming County switched parties to go to the GOP.

That gives Republicans an 18-16 margin in the Senate. So during the next 11 months or so, GOP leaders will be working hard to lengthen their lead while Democrats go all-out to reverse it.

Republicans have a bit of an advantage numerically. Of the 17 senators up for re-election this time around, 10 are Democrats. Just seven are Republicans, meaning their party has less exposure to loss. Some of the Democrat incumbents may be a bit gun shy. Just half the 10 incumbents have filed pre-candidacy papers. Six of the seven Republicans up for re-election have filed. The sole exception is Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who isn’t seeking re-election because he’s running for governor.

On the other side of the aisle, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, hasn’t filed for re-election for the same reason. He’s vying against billionaire Jim Justice for the party’s nomination for governor.

One indication of a change in how the wind blows is in the Cole and Kessler districts. No one, Republican or Democrat, has filed yet for the Sixth District seat Cole holds. In Kessler’s district, a Republican, Ginger Nalley of Sistersville, has filed. No Democrats have tossed their hats in the ring, but party leaders have some names in mind.

The deadline for filing for next year’s elections isn’t until Jan. 30, so there’s plenty of time for candidates to get into the fray.

What’s the outlook between Weld and Yost? Just a few years ago, it would have been that Weld didn’t stand a chance. Registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by nearly two-to-one in the district.

In his last campaign, 2012, Yost absolutely swamped his Republican opponent, Pat McGeehan, by a 22,661-16,850 vote tally.

But a couple of things happened during the two years before the 2014 election, when the other First District Senate seat was up for grabs.

First, dissatisfaction among many West Virginia Democrats with their party’s president, Barack Obama, exploded. Democrats on the ballot last fall had two opponents – the Republican running against them and Obama.

Second, Republicans became far better organized and financed than in the old days when they didn’t stand a chance in West Virginia.

The result last fall was that Republican Ryan Ferns won one of the two First District Senate seats, defeating incumbent Democrat Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, 13,762-12,821.

Note the enormous difference in total votes cast in First District Senate races. Nearly 13,000 fewer voters went to the polls last year than in 2012.

That could swing back the other way next year, when there’s a race for president on the ballot. The question, of course, is whether the Democrat nominee – Hillary Clinton, almost undoubtedly – will have the same effect on West Virginia voters as Obama did last year.

Well, here’s a clue: Two things about Obama have angered Mountain State voters. His war on coal has been the primary irritant, but his attitude toward national security and foreign policy comes in a close second.

Clinton has said her climate change policy will be harsher than Obama’s. And as far as security, need I say more than, “Benghazi?”

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.