BROOKHAVEN, W.Va – If you don’t look in the weeds, sometimes you miss the signs.
Late this summer, along the edges of this Mountain State town, a homemade sign jutted from the edge of a country road. It read, simply: "Change is coming."
A few miles west, toward Coopers Rock State Forest, another sign almost hidden by a cornfield read, "Change is in the air."
West Virginians always have had a distinct disdain for big government, yet poverty has kept them dependent on the one political party that provided just enough free stuff to lock them into voting for it.
A new generation willing to free itself from that tradition, along with new opportunities in energy, has put change in motion, however. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican, is poised to crush Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, a Democrat, in the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D).
West Virginia is not the only state sending signals to the political class in Washington that the Senate majority is tilting Republican, much more significantly than they understood.
Republican Scott Brown, the single-term Massachusetts senator who moved across the street to New Hampshire, has relentlessly kept up his populist message of hard work, not hard ideology; he is heading toward an upset in the Granite State’s Senate race that could put the conventional-wisdom pundits on their heels.
Most political watchers in Washington are tethered to polls that shift 2 points in either direction and think they’ve understood this cycle. But they haven’t understood the signs just below the horizon, literally.
Competency, political disconnect, lack of shared values and work ethic, all have pushed voters away from the Democrats — and not just Republican voters; many Democrats and independents have had enough of how today’s Senate majority squandered so much potential, so much goodwill and so many free passes.
Oh, and how it left a vacuum where leadership should be.
If you look at the Republican candidates on a case-by-case basis, and on a local level rather than a national level, you can understand to a much deeper degree why Democrats are in trouble.
In North Carolina, Republican Tom Tillis is a great candidate — but incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan, a Democrat, had such a money advantage this summer it has taken Tillis this long to get right-side up with voters.
Colorado’s Senate race is just stunning: Congressman Cory Gardner is the best candidate the Republicans have in the field, despite being pounded for nine months by incumbent Democrat Mark Udall. In fact, Gardner’s image has only gotten better — he lifts people up, he’s an optimist and happy to be a conservative; in contrast, Udall’s campaign is malpractice.
Joni Ernst in Iowa is a strong candidate for Republicans. Yes, she’s conservative, but her personal strength is what independents like most; she is proof that the GOP can fix its problems with female candidates and voters.
Tom Cotton in Arkansas is serious, smart, disciplined — and part of the next generation of Republicans who run on what they have done, not on shrill ideology.
Georgia’s Senate race is Mitt Romney all over again, and that could be a problem for Republicans. But if Senate control rests on Louisiana and Georgia, it is doubtful that either state will want to be known as the one that kept Harry Reid as Senate majority leader.
Democrats need 2012 bodies to show up in this election, in order to hold their majority. Black turnout will be respectable, more than 2010 but less than 2012; the same is likely with the Hispanic vote. But the single-white-female vote will hit Democrats hard.
The latest AP/GfK poll, which came out late last week, shows that only one out of 10 people who plan to vote on Nov. 4 will go into the voting booth feeling enthusiastic about Barack Obama’s presidency.
It is a sign that has been waving in the weeds for more than a year, since the 2013 scandals involving the IRS, the Department of Justice and the Department of Veterans Affairs started rolling out.
But it appears that this administration, Democrats in general and Washington’s political class kept driving past those signs and missing them.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]