RIP Senator Byrd.
We last polled West Virginia in May of 2009. Usually I would not write anything about data that old but as far as I know we were the last national polling company to do a survey in the state. At that time President Obama's approval rating in the state was only 39%. His national approval numbers were still consistent with his 2008 vote share at that time but he was already running behind the 43% he got in West Virginia at that time and I'd imagine his approval in the state is now more around the 35% range.
It's going to be very hard for Democrats to win an open seat somewhere where President Obama has a 35% approval rating. But if those words sound familiar it's because that's the exact same thing we were saying last month about the special election to replace John Murtha and Democrats not only won that race, but won it by a solid eight points.
West Virginia, like PA-12, was one of the few places in the country that did not trend Democratic in 2008. A key difference between the two that needs to be noted though is that while Obama only lost PA-12 by a point he lost West Virginia by 13. So while there are some similarities between the two situations West Virginia has shown a willingness to lean more Republican at the Presidential level.
The fact that Republicans won in Massachusetts where Obama won by 26 and lost in PA-12 where McCain won by 1 was a pretty strong reminder that candidates matter. The best case scenario for WV Democrats would be for Governor Joe Manchin to run. We found last year that he was one of the most popular Governors or Senators in the country with a 53/34 approval rating in a time when the list of politicians over 50% is very, very short. If Manchin runs it's hard to see Democrats losing the seat. Republicans in the state have a pretty short bench. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito would probably be the GOP's first choice.
If Manchin runs Democrats will hold the seat, if he doesn't it's probably a toss up. Republicans shouldn't assume they'll win just because Obama's unpopular there and Democrats shouldn't assume they'll win just because they always win Senate races in the state. Our special elections so far this year taught those lessons pretty clearly.