A West Virginia congressional seat that's been held by a Democrat for generations is now up for grabs after 14-term incumbent Rep. Alan Mollohan was swept out of office on a wave of voter unrest that an opponent called a referendum on President Barack Obama.
The congressman is the first U.S. House incumbent to be ousted this spring primary season amid widespread anti-incumbent sentiment. The same unrest helped end the 17-year career of Utah Republican Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost a GOP convention on Saturday.
State Sen. Michael Oliverio carried 56 percent of the vote to Mollohan's 44 percent Tuesday night after an aggressive campaign that questioned the incumbent's ethics and support for issues including federal health care reform.
The defeat sets up a general election battle this fall in which both Oliverio and Republican primary winner, former state GOP chairman David McKinley, will try to position themselves as fiscal conservatives and foes of big government. Both had made federal spending a key issue in the primary.
"We announced our campaign 100 days ago, and in 100 days' time our country has fallen one-third of a trillion dollars further into debt," Oliverio said. "We have to get the country's financial house in order, and that's what we're committed to doing."
But McKinley, also a former state legislator, said Mollohan's ouster is about more than spending.
"People just didn't like what was happening in Washington," he said. The outcome is a referendum on Obama's policies, from bailouts of banks and takeovers of car companies to health care reform.
"It's clear this is not the agenda they wanted," McKinley said of West Virginia voters. "This wasn't the change they envisioned."
Oliverio, a conservative Democrat, had run an aggressive campaign, portraying Mollohan as corrupt and out of touch. Conservative media rallied around the 46-year-old financial adviser from Morgantown, as did anti-abortion groups angry over Mollohan's support of health care legislation.
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List said it spent $78,000 on the 1st District race and made 80,000 prerecorded calls on Oliverio's behalf Monday and Tuesday. The results, it said, should serve as warning to other incumbents.
"We promised Rep. Mollohan and the other 'pro-life' Democrats that we would make their re-election incredibly painful if they voted 'yes' on the health care bill," said President Marjorie Dannenfelser.
Mollohan, 66, said his defeat was proof that negative campaigns still work and called Oliverio's attacks "totally spurious and totally false."
But he acknowledged that he faced a "strong headwind" of voter discontent.
"It's true there is definitely a wave out there, a national mood and wave," Mollohan said after conceding defeat.
Midterm congressional elections are referendums, he said, "and if people are not feeling good about what's happening, if they don't agree with legislation or they just are concerned, they express it."
Mollohan stood by his record, insisting most of his constituents wanted the health care reform he has championed for years. He said he worked hard to ensure no public funds would be used for abortions and is confident the legislation achieved that, even though the National Right to Life Political Action Committee endorsed Oliverio.
"I feel good in my heart tonight," said Mollohan, standing with his wife and son. "We feel like we have worked really hard and have done many, many good things in the district."
Mollohan was first elected in 1982. He ran a relatively lethargic campaign until recent weeks, when he began airing TV ads calling Oliverio dangerously conservative and bad for business and labor.
Mollohan dismissed Oliverio's attacks as a smear campaign that began four years ago when he refused to let House Republicans undermine ethics committee rules to try to protect former Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas.
In 2006, the Justice Department opened an investigation of Mollohan that is believed to have focused on the rapid growth of his personal wealth and his pattern of securing federal funds for nonprofits he helped create.
The investigation ended in January without comment or charges — which Mollohan considered vindication.
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