By Mackenzie CarpenterCharleston, W.Va. – The polls closed here at 7:30, but it's far from clear whether this state will be an early bellwether of a predicted Republican wave across the nation.
Given the extremely tight race in this special election for the late Sen. Robert Byrd's seat, it's not clear if voters here will send a Republican -- businessman John Raese -- to the Senate for the first time since 1958, or their popular Democratic governor, Joe Manchin III.
In October, the two candidates were tied in some polls, but in recent days Mr. Manchin has pulled ahead slightly, using his huge popularity, a 2-1 Democratic voter registration edge and a last minute, sharply focused ad campaign painting his opponent, 60-year-old businessman John Raese, as an outsider.
Tonight, Manchin supporters gathered in Charleston at their candidate's "victory" headquarters, while Raese supporters were in Morgantown awaiting news of their candidate's win.
Whoever does win will serve out the two remaining years of the late Sen. Robert Byrd's term. After Mr. Byrd died in June at the age of 92, Mr. Manchin appointed his chief of staff to fill the seat until this fall's special election. Under state law, the winner must take office immediately, or as soon as the Senate's lame-duck session convenes this month. That will give West Virginia's senator a little more seniority, and he will also play a key role in whether the Bush-era tax cuts stay or go, or the fate of the military's policy's on gays, "Don't Ask/Don't Tell."
Mr. Raese, who calls himself even more conservative than the Tea Party movement, tried hard to make the race a referendum on President Barack Obama, calling Mr. Manchin a "rubber stamp" on two key issues highly unpopular in West Virginia: cap and trade legislation, which would tax carbon fuels in an effort to reduce greenhouse gases, and Mr. Obama's health care reform law.
Mr. Manchin ran far and fast from Mr. Raese's attempts at linkage, stressing his own conservative credentials – he was endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Rifle Association – and at one point ran an ad showing him shooting a bullet through cap and trade legislation.
He also ran a series of negative ads against Mr. Raese noting that the Republican's family lived in Palm Beach, Florida and that Mr. Raese's wife wasn't registered to vote in West Virginia and mocking him for living in a mansion "with a pink marble driveway."
Highly popular in the state – he steered the state through two mine disasters -- with an approval rating of 70 percent, Manchin, 63, was at one point earlier this fall tied with Mr. Raese in some polls, in part, political experts said, because he hadn't bothered to campaign.
That changed in the waning weeks of the campaign.
"Joe ran one of the most disciplined, well organized campaigns I've seen," said Danny Jones, Republican mayor of Charleston. But he noted, too, that Mr. Raese "didn't go negative. He didn't bring Joe's family into it the way Joe did with Raese's wife."
Raese -- head of Greer Industries, a conglomeration of limestone and asphalt plants and a string of radio stations – has run unsuccessfully three times before, twice for the Senate and once for governor.