Establishment Democrats Embrace Their Own Tea Party-Backed Insurgent

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is sending national money and resources to help state Sen. Mike Oliverio — a tea party-endorsed conservative — get elected to Congress as a Democrat in West Virginia’s 1st district. Oliverio (D) defeated incumbent Rep. Allan Mollohan (D) in the May 11 primary, a race that saw the DCCC take him on and Mollohan question his Democratic credentials in part because he proposed a one-percent across the board cut to the federal budget.

But that’s all over now. The national Democrats, whose candidate in the primary just finished calling Oliverio “dangerous,” are now touting their nominee as the future of party control of the district. The DCCC has placed Oliverio on its “Red To Blue” list — a group of candidates the party thinks are most likely to flip a Republican seat to Democratic hands or win an open seat contest. (The DCCC says WV-01 counts as open because, well, Oliverio defeated the Democratic incumbent it used to back.)

Making nice goes both ways in the race. Oliverio has embraced his new establishment friends by, among other things, a promise to vote for whomever the party chooses as its leader on Capitol Hill (read: Speaker Pelosi) and welcoming the influx of DCCC cash and advice.Politics always makes strange bedfellows as they say, but the DCCC backing of Oliverio is an example of just how far Democrats are willing to go to compete in tough races like WV-01, where Republicans hoped to take advantage of Mollohan’s years of ethics problems, and the district’s nearly 60% support for John McCain in 2008 to flip the seat.

That job is tougher for Republicans now without Mollohan as the Democratic nominee. But the rare primary win by the challenger Oliverio now leaves the Democratic party supporting a guy who even the state’s conservatives admit is more at home with their side than with the Democratic caucus.

Oliverio was endorsed in the primary by one local tea party group. The group’s leader told the AP that Oliverio “said a lot of things that probably would be very welcome at a Tea Party rally” on the primary campaign trail. Even state Republican Party chair Douglas McKinney said the Oliverio was his kind of Democrat.

“Sen. Oliverio has always been a conservative guy,” McKinney told the Wheeling News-Register in March. “He votes with the Republican on committees [in the state Senate]. We’ve joked for years he needs to come over to the party who thinks like he does.”

Oliverio was pretty much universally seen as running to the right of Mollohan in the primary, calling at one point for an across-the-board one percent cut to the federal budget that Mollohan supporters called “dangerous.” (Oliverio’s campaign now says he supports targeted cuts, and that the across-the-board line was a flip answer, not a legitimate policy proposal.)

On the primary campaign trail, Oliverio suggested he’d vote against most Democrats when choosing a leader for the caucus in the House. “Hopefully, there will be a better candidate than Nancy Pelosi,” he told the Wheeling News-Register in April.

Since winning the Democratic nomination, Oliverio campaign manger Curtis Wilkerson says Oliverio has changed his tune a bit. “He will support whomever Democrats support for speaker,” Wilkerson told Politico last month.

Wilkerson says all the praise from the conservatives before the primary was meant to push Democratic voters toward Mollohan, the candidate Republicans preferred to face in November. Oliverio is a Democrat, he said, and is ready and willing to accept the support of the national party in the general election.

Wilkerson said Oliverio’s campaign was focused on Mollohan’s ethics problems, not issues, and that Oliverio has many of the same beliefs (both are anti-abortion for example) that Mollohan brought to the Congress.

“I would say he’s right in line with the views of the district,” Wilkerson said.

When he won the primary, Oliverio’s victory was seen in the national press as being part of the anti-establishment push many say is defining this election year. Now he’s a top-tier DCCC candidate. With Mollohan gone, Democrats say they’re ready to place the national party’s bets on their own tea party-backed insurgent — and, they say, that should worry the GOP.

Note: This post has been updated.