Candidate Has Byrd’s-Eye View

Posted February 5, 2008 at 6:40pm

Since becoming state Sen. John Unger’s last-minute replacement as the Democratic frontrunner in West Virginia’s 2nd district race, Anne Barth has said her campaign resembles a ship that is being built as it’s being sailed.

After four campaign kickoff events in the past five days, one slogan Barth has begun to play up in her unexpected candidacy is “11th-hour power.”

But as she tries to knock off four-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) in a district that spans the state’s eastern panhandle to Charleston, it’s clear from the outset that Barth’s main source of political strength comes from her 21 years of working for the ultimate source of power in West Virginia, Sen. Robert Byrd (D).

In an interview Tuesday, Barth was quick to play up her Byrd credentials in discussing her race.

“I am honored by my association with [Byrd] and I have an advantage of having learned from him over the years,” she said. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, to work for the people of West Virginia with him in Washington but to live and raise my family here in the 2nd Congressional district.”

Barth, now 50, started working in Byrd’s Charleston office in 1987 and by the summer of 1992 she was serving as the Senator’s state director. In that role she not only became well-versed on state policy initiatives, but after working on every Byrd re-election campaign since1982 and serving as his campaign manager in 2006 she’s also well aware of the political landscape in the Mountain State.

Before Unger told local papers that he had decided “to focus my attention on working closely with the people of West Virginia to find solutions … rather than spend the next 10 months campaigning for Congress,” the Democratic strategy in West Virginia had been built through trial and error.

After repeatedly failing to knock off Capito with candidates from in and around Charleston, Democrats had cast their gaze to the eastern panhandle and Unger’s state Senate district to find their champion. It was assumed that the Charleston Democratic vote would stay strong and that Unger’s eastern roots would peel away voters in Capito’s base in a district where President Bush won 57 percent of the vote in 2004.

With Barth now in the race, the strategy is a little less complicated.

“The Unger theory was a geographic theory,” said Kirk Holman, a political columnist in western Pennsylvania who follows West Virginia affairs. “My contention would be that Byrd’s presence in that state is so pervasive that it’s not going to be a geographic vote. … If Byrd says, ‘I like Anne, she’s a good woman,’ it’s a competitive race. If Byrd says, ‘Shelley is hurting my efforts in West Virginia and I need Anne,’ then Shelley should take a stroll down K Street because that’s where she’s going to work next.”

When Barth entered the race last week, Byrd released a strong statement of endorsement — Barth stepped down as his state director before filing to run — noting that “no person is more talented, experienced or qualified than Anne Barth to step into that role and hit the ground running. Through our many years of service together she has earned my faith, trust and confidence.”

Barth said Tuesday that she expects to play host to Byrd at upcoming campaign events in the state.

Byrd’s support could be key in opening up crucial fundraising avenues late in the game since Unger had been fundraising for months and his latest Federal Election Commission report showed that he took in $120,000 through the end of December. Capito’s latest fundraising report showed her with $644,000 in cash on hand.

Assuming Barth makes it out of a three-way Democratic primary, Republicans say Capito’s strategy will have to be to get voters to look beyond the aura of Byrd by pinning Barth down on various issues.

Kent Gates, Capito’s campaign consultant, said Tuesday that Capito “is always prepared for a tough re-election and any candidate is going to have to prove their worth to the voters of West Virginia. [Barth] is going to have to tell voters who she is. I don’t think she can get elected just by saying she worked for Sen. Robert Byrd.”

Gates also said that any calls for change that Barth makes during the course of the campaign will ring hollow.

“I also find it interesting that when she was campaign manager for Sen. Byrd’s re-election campaign in 2006, she was arguing that seniority matters and was against change in the West Virginia delegation,” he said.

When asked about her positions on Tuesday, Barth said, “I have not started making any statements on issues yet because I’m still sort of in the introductory phase of my campaign. My former boss is a household name but mine is not exactly a household name yet and I will be rolling all of those out here very shortly. It’s very early in this campaign.”

But Barth supporters argue that it’s slightly hypocritical for Republicans to dismiss Barth for her Byrd connections when Capito herself is the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore (R) — and was a beneficiary of Bush’s coattails in past elections when that wasn’t considered a liability.

“Anne’s decades of working with Sen. Byrd and the benefits of all his connections make her an excellent candidate and the fact that she’s a woman also helps her in her race against Capito,” said John Kennedy Bailey, a Charleston-based lawyer whose father served as state treasurer.