West Virginia Loss Sends Another Warning Shot to Incumbents

Mollohan's down, how many to go?

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Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) became the second incumbent this week to be ousted by his own party after suffering defeat at the hands of state Sen. Mike Oliverio in the Democratic primary in West Virginia’s 1st District. Politico's Andy Barr reports that Oliverio "successfully tapped into the nationwide anti-incumbent sentiment in branding Mollohan as a “corrupt” Washington insider" driving anti-incumbent sentiment across the nation. However, Barr also notes that "Mollohan’s support for health care and attacks on him from pro-life groups" may actually have been the key to unseating long-time Democratic congressman. Either way, Mollohan's defeat is made all the more symbolic by status as a 14-term incumbent. With entrenched congressman enduring barbs at the ballot box, pundits weigh in on what Mollohan's defeat says about the coming midterm elections.

  • A Unique Race The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza writes that the "lingering whiff of ethics problems" that trailed Mollohan for years was magnified by 2010's anti-incumbent anger. "Oliverio, who served a single term in the state House of Delegates before being elected to the state Senate in 1994, ran hard against Mollohan's entrenched incumbent status," observes Cillizza. "The race has gotten very nasty over its final weeks with Oliverio referring to Mollohan as 'one of the most corrupt members of Congress' and the incumbent retorting that his opponent is 'lying' and "spreading right-wing smears.'" However, Cillizza also sees in the Mollohan campaign a cautionary tale for other incumbents. "Mollohan, despite regular warning from state and national Democratic strategists ... ran a campaign suited to the early 1990s rather than 2010." Cillizza also senses a health-care angle at play in that Mollohan's foe "actually ran to the incumbent's ideological right -- castigating him for his vote in favor of President Obama's health care bill."
  • Do Ethics Matter?  Carol Platt Liebau of Townhall disputes the importance of Mollohan's ethics violations. "Part of the MSM meme no doubt will be that Mollohan's ethics problems did him in," scoffs Liebau, "but he had ethics problems back in 2006, too, when he won with a handy 64% of the vote. And this seat has been in his family since 1968." On the other hand, Michelle Malkin asserts that the ethics problems that sank Mollohan are indicative of a larger trend:
What was I saying the other day? Yeah: The ballot box is the ultimate sanitizer. It’s working for entrenched Beltway Republicans like Bob Bennett. And it’s working for entrenched Democrat corruptocrats like Rep. Alan Mollohan, who was defeated in his primary race tonight. ... West Virginians took matters into their own hands and sent their message loud and clear: It’s the Culture of Corruption, stupid. If Washington won’t hold these lowlifes accountable, voters will.
  • Abortion Might Spell Trouble   Michael Tomasky at the Gaurdian smells trouble for Democrats regarding health-care reform. "Mollohan had hideous ethics issues, without which I suspect he probably would have eked this thing out," muses Tomasky. "I'm not sure how much of a harbinger this is, except for one thing that stands out that Democrats should worry about his abortion angle on healthcare reform, I fear, is going to be big this fall. This is my home district and even though I haven't lived there for a long time I know it pretty well still. When I was young there was hardly any such thing as a coordinated anti-abortion movement there, but today it has deep roots. I would imagine that's true in a lot of places."
  • Abortion Will Definitely Be Trouble   Suzy Khimm of Mother Jones takes a similar view, predicting danger for "Bart Stupak" Democrats. "As part of the Bart Stupak bloc of anti-abortion Democrats, Mollohan had threatened to vote against health-care reform over its abortion provisions before capitulating in the eleventh hour. The ire of anti-abortion advocates first came down on Stupak himself, helping to drive him into retirement just weeks after the bill passed. They've vowed to take out the other members of the Stupak bloc—did they just claim their first scalp?" Time's Jay Newton-Small certainly believes in the "Stupak Curse": "Mollohan was one of the 14 Democrats who voted for Bart Stupak's amendment in November and for health care reform on final passage. Republicans are targeting this group, accusing them of flip flopping on abortion; the GOP even has a website called Stupak's Sellouts."
  • Relax With the Comparisons!  Steve Benen warns against making mountains out of molehills regarding Mollohan's ouster:
The parallels with Bennett's recent defeat in Utah are a little misleading. Bennett lost because the Republican base decided he wasn't right-wing enough. In West Virginia, Mollohan wasn't "purged" by the Democratic base for being a moderate; the incumbent's challenger was far more conservative than he was.

So, what happened here? Most of the media analysis will focus on the lousy climate for incumbents, and that was certainly part of the equation in WV1. But the variables paint a more complex picture. Mollohan faced a lengthy ethics investigation, and while he never faced formal charges, the probe made it easy for Oliverio to raise questions about the incumbent's integrity.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.