The Agony of the Red State Democrat

Yesterday, conservatives enjoyed a moment of pleasure at the expense of Natalie Tennant, a Democratic candidate for Senate in the formerly Democratic state of West Virginia (more on that in a moment). The video is a little hard to understand without knowing the context of what she and this voter are talking about, but the essence is that he's unhappy about a decision by the EPA that apparently has something to do with coal, Tennant says she agrees with him, and he asks how she could support President Obama. I'm pretty sure this guy isn't going to vote for her in a million years, but since she's running for office, Tennant has to act like she might be able to win this fellow over, and the result is a terribly awkward few moments. It ends when a supporter of hers, who turns out to be a retired general who led the West Virginia National Guard, steps in to help her in her floundering and says that "on most of [Obama's] policies and stuff she supports," but not his policies on coal.

The line the general takes is pretty standard stuff—any candidate from the party of a president who's not particularly popular in her state will say that yes, she's a member of this party, but she's an independent thinker who isn't afraid to stand up to the president when he's wrong. What's unusual here is that Tennant's campaign quickly issued a statement saying, "The general misspoke. Natalie does not support the majority of the president's policies." I can't seem to remember a Senate candidate ever going quite that far.

But if you understand West Virginia, it makes a certain sense. Perhaps because of the key role unions played in the state's coal industry for so long, which meant Democrats kept a foothold while realignment proceeded throughout the South, West Virginia was pretty much the last state in the country to get the memo that conservatives are supposed to be Republicans. Bill Clinton won the state in 1996, but in each subsequent presidential election, the Republican has won it by a larger margin. In West Virginia, Bush won in 2000 by 6 points, then he won in 2004 by 13, then McCain won by 13 as well, (keep in mind that he did that while losing badly in the country at large), and Romney won in 2012 by 27 points. Without casting aspersions on the content of any individual's heart, the fact that the state is 93 percent white probably doesn't contribute to Barack Obama's popularity there, nor does the alleged "war on coal" he's been waging (even though there aren't many coal miners left there; as of 2012, there were only 22,786 miners in the state, or about one out of every 65 adult West Virginians).

I'm guessing Natalie Tennant is getting a lot of questions about the "war on coal" as she traverses the state, and that's just one reason why it must be utterly miserable to be a Democrat running for a seat there. At every turn, you have to defend your party in a place where people hate it, and you have to convince them that you're just as pissed off at the president as they are. It can't be fun.

Since for some reason I've been hearing the siren song of spreadsheets every day this week, I thought I'd look at how Tennant compares to other Democrats running for Senate this year when it comes to the President. Here's a graph showing how Obama did in 2012 in each of the states where there's a Senate race this year (I've omitted the couple of races where the Democratic candidate has yet to be determined):

As you can see, the only Democrats facing a worse environment than Natalie Tennant are two zero-chance candidates in Idaho and Oklahoma. She's got an uphill climb—the polls that have been taken show her trailing by around 10 points, which is big enough to make it a real long shot but just small enough to convince you that you have a chance. So Tennant will continue to campaign, probably getting abuse at every turn. I don't envy her.

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