BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va. – For as long as this country has existed, this charming Eastern Panhandle town has thrived, thanks initially to its abundant mineral water and its proximity to the nation’s capital.
It was the country’s first official resort town. George Washington not only slept here, he bathed here. He came first as a teenage surveyor and later as president, seeking the healing effects of the medicinal springs.
Yet thriving is tough in this economy. Just ask Shannon DeLaunden, who has been out of work for over a year.
A health-care worker who voted for the first time in 2008, when she supported President Barack Obama, she voices one of the problems Democrats now face: "I won’t vote this November."
Although still inspired by the charm and promise of Obama, she can’t think of a way she has benefited from his policies.
That’s a problem the president may face in another election year. But right now, it is exactly why Gov. Joe Manchin, a very popular West Virginia Democrat, faces a tough election for U.S. Senate against Republican businessman John Raese.
A recent survey by Rasmussen Reports shows Manchin up only six points, 48 percent to 42 percent, heading toward November’s special election to fill the late Robert Byrd’s Senate term. A month earlier, Manchin was at 51 percent, Raese at 35.
Much of Manchin’s problem lies in the town he wants to call home – Washington, D.C. As soon as he seeks to go there, he morphs in voters’ minds into an Obama Democrat.
Once known as Bath, Berkeley Springs thrives on tourism: The Potomac River flows just to its north, and the town lies in a valley surrounded by the Cacapon and Sleepy Creek mountains.
Tom Grinder, a Baltimore transplant who owns Portals, a New Age shop in the heart of town, says he is holding his own in this economy … "barely."
An independent voter, Grinder liked Manchin as governor but hasn’t decided whether to vote for him this fall.
He winces when he realizes Manchin’s former general counsel and hand-picked seat-holder in the U.S. Senate, Carte Goodwin, gave Democrats the vote needed to move a spending bill.
"That changes everything," Grinder says bluntly. "Manchin essentially showed me how he would have voted on spending, and possibly a lot of other things that I opposed with this administration."
Welcome to the land of the classic Jacksonian Democrats, who vote God, guns and country. They are largely descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who have an inherent distrust of government. They may not show up for a protest but they do vote their consciences and their pocketbooks.
Given the current political climate, it is almost as if the rest of the country has embraced its inner West Virginia.
This state’s politics has created an awkward situation for Democrats. Not only has the Senate race emerged as a possible problem but so have those for two of the state’s three U.S. House seats. All of the Democrats’ national committees are spending money here in a year in which they are spread thin by a discontented, disconnected electorate.
West Virginia’s First Congressional District saw longtime Rep. Alan Mollohan defeated in a primary by fellow Democrat and state senator Mike Oliverio. Republican David McKinley ran a strong primary campaign and presents a solid opportunity for a GOP gain in a district that McCain carried with 57 percent of the vote in 2008.
Little attention was paid to the Third District’s race until news that longtime Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat, used congressional stationery to ask a judge for leniency for his son in a 2005 robbery case. GOP candidate Spike Maynard may capitalize on that but also is making a case that Rahall has not done enough to stop the Obama administration’s "War on Coal."
Chuck Wheeler is a former Capitol Hill Democratic staffer who owns Berkeley Springs’ Fairfax Coffeehouse and Mt. Laurel Gallery, an upscale boutique specializing in jewelry, artwork and clothing by American craftsman.
Wheeler thinks Manchin has no problem, probably because Wheeler has no Manchin problem. He says the stimulus package did a great job but admits the economy is bad and so is business. He says he loves the health-care bill but admits he has no idea what’s in it or if his employees will benefit from it.
Frustrated by his own admissions as he walks through his beautiful but very-empty gallery, Wheeler says, "Well, I think a lot of the reason why people don’t like Obama is racism."
Later, in his coffee shop, he wonders if that is the real reason.