Baxter will make for an interesting race

Long before Donald Trump turned politics inside-out by trash-talking the establishment, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., was using the strategy to win a seat in Congress from our state. Trouble is, the political establishment then was the Democrat Party. Now, it’s the Republicans.

Democrat Ralph Baxter, who’s running against McKinley, is going to spend the 14 months leading to the 2018 election reminding voters in our area of the state of that. And because he’s a newcomer as a candidate — but definitely not as someone involved in politics — Baxter enjoys some immunity to accusations he’s part of the Democrat establishment.

Both men are Wheeling residents seeking to represent the 20 northern West Virginia counties of the First Congressional District. Both men are highly successful in business, Baxter as an attorney and McKinley as an engineer.

McKinley won election to the seat, held by Democrats for many years previously, in 2010. His campaign was largely an anti-establishment one, not a difficult thing to pull off in a West Virginia just beginning to suffer from then-President Barack Obama’s administration. Plus, McKinley capitalized on frustration with decades of Democrat control of state government.

During his announcement speech earlier this month, Baxter made his strategy clear. “You can choose the status quo, or you can choose something different,” he told the crowd. “We need a better voice” in Washington, he added.

“Our government is not working for our people,” he said at another point. And then, the kicker: “I am not a politician. I am a West Virginian.”

Baxter offered few specifics, except on Obamacare — and there, he seemed to distance himself from some fellow Democrats. “We’ve got to make health care affordable for our people,” he said. Funny, but many Americans thought that was what Obamacare was supposed to do.

One interesting aspect of Baxter’s announcement: Unless I missed it, there was no criticism of Republican President Donald Trump.

Trump, of course, is the king of manipulating anti-establishment sentiment. Though Baxter didn’t say he wants to drain the swamp, he had no kind words for the political establishment. And he clearly wants to make McKinley appear to be part of that.

McKinley can fight back on that score. Voters will remember that, at a time when the Environmental Protection Agency was the apparently unstoppable vanguard of Obama’s war on coal and affordable electricity, McKinley was the only West Virginian to have taken the agency on — and beaten it.

That was when the EPA wanted to implement draconian new limits on coal ash. McKinley forced the agency to back away from that.

No doubt McKinley will remind voters that Baxter was a generous supporter of Obama. Federal Election Commission reports indicate that, while living in California, Baxter contributed nearly $19,000 to groups supporting Obama (Obama for America and the Obama Victory Fund).

No state gave Trump a higher percentage of votes than did West Virginia last fall. He garnered 68.6 percent of the total here.

If Baxter is hoping northern West Virginians are less pro-Republican, he may be wrong. First Congressional District residents gave Trump 68 percent of their votes.

The McKinley-Baxter duel may well come down to which of the two can convince voters he’s more of an enemy of the establishment — and more of an ally of Trump. In that, McKinley starts out with the advantage of being a Republican.

It’s going to be interesting. One politician suggested Tuesday that McKinley has never faced as formidable an opponent as Baxter.

Ask former state Sen. Mike Oliverio, of Morgantown, about that. After defeating longtime incumbent Congressman Alan Mollohan in the 2010 Democrat primary, he and McKinley faced off in the general election. McKinley won, but only with 50.4 percent of the vote, to Oliverio’s 49.6 percent.

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

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