Fighting against an entrenched incumbent is just about a fool’s errand, unless said incumbent has really bungled their term. To really get the flavor of how valuable incumbency can be, take a look at the U.S. Senate contests in 2010 and 2012 between Republican John Raese and Democrat Joe Manchin.
In 2010, then Gov. Manchin was not the incumbent U.S. senator. That role went to Carte Goodwin, who was appointed until the next election to that high office, following the death of longtime Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.
So, even though Manchin had been very much in the public eye for many years as governor and secretary of state, he was a non-incumbent, just like Raese. The result was a close race that could have gone either way.
But, in just two short years, when Raese came back for a rematch against Manchin for the same U.S. Senate seat, Manchin’s incumbency was like a giant thumb on the election scales. Manchin won handily in 2012, earning a full, six-year term.
Incumbents who know how to make news and who go out actively to press the flesh during their term receive copious amounts of free, statewide publicity — at zero cost to themselves. Public attention comes with public office.
So what makes former secretary of state Natalie Tennant believe she has a real shot at knocking off Warner? After all, Warner is that rare exception to the rule: a challenger who actually beat an incumbent — in this case, Tennant herself, four years ago.
On paper, Tennant seems to be a solid candidate. She has experience, was secretary of state for two terms and has been on the statewide ballot twice more, in 2011 for governor and, in 2014, for U.S. Senate, although both times unsuccessfully. Plus, her many years as a Charleston TV news personality helped her early on to achieve better-than-average name recognition.
However, Tennant’s opponent has been busy throughout his term as secretary of state. In a word, while Warner is genuinely cheerful in his interactions with the press and public, this is a man driven to make the most of his time as secretary of state. A common joke about Warner is that he never expects his staff to work any harder than he does. (Warner often comes to work early and leaves late.)
But what has resulted from Warner’s famous work ethic? Has the public benefited from his tenure?
For starters, Warner came into office at a time when election meddling by the Russians was a serious concern. Americans had never really had to grapple with a foreign power developing such an orchestrated effort to mess with our elections.
Warner immediately volunteered to help the National Association of Secretaries of State with its cybersecurity efforts. He has joined with the Department of Homeland Security to develop a program designed to educate Americans about the nature of foreign threats to U.S. elections and measures against cyber threats.
As a result of his work in protecting our state’s databases, West Virginia has gained national recognition in this important area of election security.
Otherwise, the Elections Division under Warner worked for nearly his entire term with county clerks to purge from the state’s voter rolls more than 191,000 deceased, outdated, or duplicated out-of-state or felony voter files. Considering the unfortunate abuse of deceased voters in past generations, Warner’s clean-up efforts have been a breath of fresh air.
In other office divisions, in 2018, Warner established the first five-agency, single-location business and licensing center. Under the pro-business Warner, the Secretary of State’s Office regularly celebrates those counties with the most new business incorporations, a nice touch for a state that needs to cheer on business starts.
Warner is a doer, always looking for new ways to tune up a sometimes forgotten office. While Tennant might have sound experience as a former secretary of state, she appears to have an uphill climb as the election draws near.
Yes, she could bring up Warner’s early firing of some longtime Secretary of State’s Office employees after coming into office, and the millions in taxpayer dollars paid out to settle those lawsuits. Those affected by Warner’s efforts to restructure his office still might harbor disenchantment with him.
However, that action took place over three years ago and, if there is one axiom in politics that nearly always holds true, it is that memories fade. Warner had the good fortune to have his controversy early on in his tenure.
So, where is the daylight for Natalie Tennant to take out an incumbent who has already beaten her once? Search me.