Reporting from Gerrardstown, W.Va. — Republican John Raese hasn't thought much about what role he would play in the U.S. Senate, and acknowledges he doesn't know many of his potential colleagues.
"I would have to establish myself before I approached somebody, and they go, 'Well, who's this guy?'" the usually self-confident West Virginia millionaire said in an interview at a supporter's mountain home this week.
In fact, though, if Raese makes it to the Senate, his Republican colleagues will know very well who he is.
The pro-business stalwart has become a key figure underpinning the GOP's lingering hopes for seizing control of the Senate.
"A Republican win in West Virginia would be one indication of a 'wave' election," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst for the Cook Political Report, which handicaps races. "I'd also put in Wisconsin, Washington and California in the category."
The race to serve out the remainder of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd's term was expected to be an easy walk for Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III, who won reelection two years ago with 70% of the vote.
But nothing has been easy for Democrats this year. Political prognosticators have long speculated that the GOP could take control of the House, and the picture in the Senate has been in flux.
Democrats breathed easier when "tea party" conservative Christine O'Donnell won the GOP nomination in moderate Delaware. But the respite didn't last long. At about the same time, Raese's campaign appeared to surge in polling, as did that of Linda McMahon in Connecticut, another corporate executive running in a state once thought safe for Democrats.
Both races opened new opportunities for Republicans to pick up seats now held by Democrats.
Duffy puts the chances of a GOP majority in the Senate as "relatively small." To pull it off, Republicans must hold all of their current seats, win the campaigns they now lead, and take nine of the 11 races rated as tossups by the Cook Political Report.
Polls this week show Democrats gaining an advantage in at least two of those tossups — Connecticut and Washington. But along with Nevada and Illinois, West Virginia remains a dead heat.
Analysts largely attribute the standoff to the national mood. West Virginia's economy has weathered the recession relatively well. Manchin's approval rating remains high.
Still, after Byrd's death in June ended a 51-year reign in the Senate, West Virginia voters have seemed unwilling to give the seat to another career politician. Meanwhile, President Obama — who lost the state in 2008 by 13 percentage points — is seen as a symbol of dysfunctional Washington.
Raese, a favorite of tea party groups, has sought to tie Manchin to the president.
"Don't send a rubber stamp to Washington and trust that rubber stamp," Raese, who owns steel fabrication and limestone companies and has media interests, told a group of tea party supporters Tuesday at a forum.
Manchin seems dumbfounded and frustrated by that label.
"He's trying to scare people into thinking, 'He's been a good governor, but if you send him to Washington he'll be as crazy as they rest of them,'" the governor said in an interview.
In recent weeks, Manchin has aggressively distanced himself from Democrats in Washington. He says he'll work to repeal parts of Obama's healthcare overhaul. He's touted his endorsement from the National Rifle Assn. and opposes legislation intended to curb carbon dioxide gases. In one campaign commercial, the governor loads a rifle and shoots a copy of the so-called cap-and-trade climate bill.
The issue is potent in a state where federal regulations are viewed as a burden on coal mining. Manchin has the endorsement of the state's coal industry, but Raese has accused Manchin of wavering, and the attacks appeared to have an impact.
"My whole family is old-school Democrats, pro-union. They're all in the coal industry," said Jill Lauder, a 28-year-old stay-at-home mother from Inwood, in the eastern part of the state. "I don't know if Manchin really supports coal."
Lauder plans to vote Republican. But that doesn't mean she doesn't have concerns about Raese.
She was offended by a GOP commercial that used actors in trucker caps and work shirts — a casting call for the ad asked for a "hicky" look. The ad was paid by the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has spent $2 million in the state — double the amount spent by its Democratic counterpart.
Several voters said they knew little about Raese but were interested in sending a message to Washington.
As a messenger, Raese is a free-wheeling speaker with a booming radio voice, a knack for Ronald Reagan impersonations and a penchant for tripping up on proper names. (When mentioning Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the tea party forum, Raese called him "Arma-den-a-dingo." "I'm not a politician," he said.)