Oliverio

Mollohan

By HOPPY KERCHEVAL

MORGANTOWN -- State Sen. Mike Oliverio had to admit he was shocked.

It was just after 10 p.m. Tuesday and the Primary Election results showed him ahead of 14-term incumbent First District Congressman Alan Mollohan by 12 points.

Metronews had within the last hour projected that Oliverio would go on to defeat Mollohan in what would be one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory in West Virginia.

You see, West Virginia voters throw out incumbents about as often as they stage "welcome home" parties for Rich Rodriguez.

It's not that Oliverio expected to lose. He and his campaign manager Curtis Wilkerson stubbornly insisted that their own recent polling showing Oliverio up by eight points was on target.

I didn't buy it, nor did many others I talked with. Mollohan's polling showing the incumbent Democrat up by nine points seemed more believable.

But that's why we have elections, rather than leaving such matters to the pundits. And a closer look at Mollohan's polling showed a large block of undecided voters. Everybody who was thinking about voting knew Mollohan, but one in five was not sure they could vote for him.

That's a troubling number for an incumbent.

Wilkerson repeated to me the campaign truism -- politics is about timing, and Mollohan's was all bad.

He was an incumbent at a time when Washington experience is a liability. Mollohan has always played the Washington inside game and that's been good for millions of dollars in earmarks to the district, but more insiders are now finding themselves outside looking in.

Mollohan's response to questions about his finances was that he was cleared by a federal investigation. It's true, but it just doesn't sound good. Whenever one of your campaign messages is, "accused, but never indicted," you have a problem.

Mollohan arrogantly refused to debate. Interestingly, when third district Congressman Nick Rahall won re-nomination Tuesday night he immediately said he wanted to debate his opponent.

Perhaps Rahall saw that Mollohan's decision to avoid a head-to-head with his opponent was a tactical mistake. What could be more indicative of an out-of-touch congressman than refusing to debate his opponent?

Also, Mollohan's attack ads against Oliverio were flawed. Negative ads, to be successful, have to be believable. Mollohan's ads accused Oliverio of everything from gambling away seniors' Social Security to cutting veterans programs.

The ads stopped just short of saying that Oliverio is mean to puppies.

But Oliverio also deserves credit for his campaign. He accomplished in 100 days what none of Mollohan's other opponents in 14 elections have been able to do.

He worked hard.

He had a simple, appealing message -- the citizens of the district deserve better. At another time, that wouldn't have worked. We always feel like we deserve better from our politicians, but we're not usually willing to believe that the challenge can deliver it better than the incumbent.

But that message resonated in this anti-incumbency swell we're riding.

Still, a 12-point victory is remarkable. That's an outcome that will have incumbents across the country wondering if they could end up like Mollohan.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.

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