WHEELING, W.Va. -- In the higgledy-piggledy rush toward this year's midterm elections, nothing is certain.
Even a very conservative Democrat, who had anti-Washington magic on his side in the spring, can be in danger of losing grip on a seat his party has held for more than 40 years.
When Mike Oliverio beat U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan in the West Virginia's Democratic primary in May -- in a 1st District seat Mr. Mollohan or his father had held since 1969 -- he became a model of the anti-incumbent feelings raging across the nation. Now he must hold on against opponent David McKinley, as the Republican tries to follow the same wildfire into a shocking victory.
Something is happening in West Virginia.
The district across the top part of the state has an 18-percentage-point Democratic registration edge, and Republicans sat out five of its last seven elections. But it is the same state where popular Gov. Joe Manchin lately has seen his lead in the U.S. Senate race go from 22 points ahead of Republican John Raese in one poll to six points down -- largely due to anger at the Obama administration.
Now some are wondering if Democrats such as Mr. Oliverio might get swept down in the same undertow.
"I don't know if people know what to think. There's a sense of, look, we voted for Democrats around here for decades, and where's it gotten us?" said David Bloomquist, a conservative morning talk show host for WWVA-AM in Wheeling.
"Oliverio is the candidate West Virginia has always gone for -- as I said, where's it really gotten them? If you base it on the Mollohan defeat, change is really in the wind and it opens a door for McKinley."
The most recent poll, released by the McKinley campaign, showed Mr. Oliverio with a 5-point lead in the race, with a large number of undecided voters. Most national political experts call the race a toss-up.
"I feel good about our position to win this race. We're working hard to close it strong," said Mr. Oliverio, a pro-gun, anti-abortion Morgantown native and U.S. Army veteran who has served in the state Senate since 1994. Mr. Manchin, a native of nearby Farmington, represented the same Senate district.
"I feel I am very representative of the district and that in the end will carry the day. The voters know I am like them, share their values, and they believe I will fight for them in Washington."
Mr. McKinley, 63, is the longtime owner of the McKinley & Associates engineering firm in Wheeling and a former state House of Delegates member. He was chairman of the state's Republican Party in the 1990s and lost the GOP primary for governor to Cecil Underwood in 1996.
His campaign is largely based on a job-creation agenda, mixed with disdain for the Obama administration.
"It is not just words -- we know how to do it, and we've done it," he said, referring to his firm's development projects in the Upper Ohio Valley.
Of the administration, he said, "It's clear they don't understand how to create jobs. They know how to spend money, but they don't know how to do it to create jobs."
In the U.S. Senate race, Mr. Raese has effectively used Mr. Obama's toxic approval ratings in West Virginia -- where he is less popular than in any state east of the Mississippi -- to flood the airwaves with commercials tarring Mr. Manchin as an Obama apologist. It's been like free advertising for Mr. McKinley.
"When you look at the kind of things that the administration and the Pelosi majority have proposed, it's anathema to most people, especially in West Virginia," said U.S. House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., during a trip to Wheeling last week. "The more activity and debate and dialogue that occurs, whether at the senatorial or this congressional level, it all brings to the arena the notion that we do need a balanced approach in Washington."
To battle Republican efforts to link him with Washington, Mr. Oliverio has tried to keep the focus on Mr. McKinley and define him for voters in an unflattering way.
"I'm a strong, independent voice and share the values of this district, and he's a bit of an unknown," Mr. Oliverio said. "What they are finding out about him they're not necessarily liking, like that he's used his position to secure millions in government contracts."
That was a reference to the latest charge from the Oliverio camp that Mr. McKinley's firm has been awarded $5.9 million in government contracts, some of it for historic preservation requirements he championed as a legislator.
"Shame on Mike Oliverio," responded McKinley spokesman Steve Cohen. "Unlike 'Tax Hike Mike' Oliverio, David McKinley is proud of his record of creating thousands of private sector jobs."
Mr. Oliverio's propensity for using negative attacks made an enemy of legendary West Virginia Democrat Ken Hechler when Mr. Oliverio ran against him for secretary of state in 2004, and likely turned off union supporters of Mr. Mollohan. Mr. Oliverio repeatedly torched the incumbent on a Justice Department investigation that led to no charges.
Neither the United Mine Workers or the AFL-CIO made endorsements in the race, which is a snub for a Democrat.
Looking back, the emerging worries for Democrats in the state should have been clear two years ago, when Hillary Rodham Clinton crushed Mr. Obama 67-26 percent in the state's primary, before John McCain took the state that fall -- including the 1st Congressional District -- by 15 points.
Timothy McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581. Read the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com.