Is Calling West Virginians “Hicky” Insulting?

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I spent the last few days in West Virginia looking at the special election for Robert Byrd’s Senate seat. Two-term Governor Joe Manchin, a Democrat who until recently was leading by double digits, has seized on a TV ad put up by the independent expenditure arm of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that features some guys at a diner discussing the race. That ads itself is not controversial, it’s the Philadelphia casting call seeking “hicky” men in worn clothing leaked to Politico that forced the NRSC to pull down the ad. Here’s the ad in a CNN block:

Manchin is doing his best to tie the ad to his opponent, millionaire businessman John Raese. Manchin accuses Raese (pronounced Ray-See) of actually residing in Palm Beach, Fla., where his wife and daughters live. “I’m running against someone who is not to the core a typically West Virginian and what I mean by that is: he and his family live in Palm Beach, Fla. — a beautiful big mansion. They fly their jets back and forth,” Manchin said in an interview in Elkins. “That ad that they’re running against me now. To have a casting call in the most disparaging way and him not even saying, ‘I’m sorry for that happening,’ not even apologizing. Not even saying, ‘It’s wrong,’ not even asking them to take it off the air. It just shows you – now I know why he lives in Palm Beach, Fla. because he doesn’t really want to be here or be part of us and he’s not one of us.”

Raese says he is a full time West Virginian and that his daughter has a disability – one he wouldn’t discuss — that forced the family to seek help outside of West Virginia. Liz Raese, John’s wife, said their daughter attends a special “Christian-based school because otherwise they’d want to give her Ritalin and other kinds of drugs.” That school is in Palm Beach where Liz and the couple’s two daughters spend most of their time. They spend time enough there for Liz Raese to be granted a homestead exemption, available only to permanent residents, on their Florida property taxes. Though, Liz Raese is quick to note that she, like her husband, still votes in West Virginia. The family has a home in Morgantown, which John Raese says is his primary residence – he said he’d release tax information this week proving it — and Raese can trace his family roots in the state back generations.

On the ad, Raese says he has nothing to apologize for. “You always have over zealous supporters, people that want you to win. And I’m sure before the election is over Joe Manchin might have a few come in that he might not like, who knows? That’s just a part of a national race. I’ve been a part of a national race before, this is not my first time, and I think Joe — this is his first time. So you’re always going to have a lot of supporters that get excited. They get excited. It’s nice to have friends,” Raese said in a separate interview in Elkins. Raese ran against Jay Rockefeller for Senate in 1984 and challenged Robert Byrd in 2006 – he lost both bids. When asked about Manchin’s demands that he apologize, Raese replied: “To me, I wasn’t offended by it. I’m a native West Virginian and I’ve been called everything from a hillbilly to a stump jumper. I’m always proud of it, I’ve very proud to be a West Virginian. I don’t want to get into a match with Joe Manchin in slinging negatives, that’s just not what I do. I had nothing to do with the ad so what am I supposed to apologize for?”

Democrats have also seized on statements by Raese’s spokesman, Kevin McLaughlin, that the campaign “asked that [the ad] be taken down long before it went public.” As an independent expenditure group it’s illegal for the ad’s makers to coordinate with the campaign in any way. Raese said he had “no knowledge” of anyone in his office seeing the ad before it aired and he himself did not see it until it aired.

So, can one ad change the course of a campaign? We’ve seen examples where it has, in both directions. But this ad is not outrageous in its content, merely in the way it was produced. With Raese pulling ahead of Manchin in the polls, it’s easy to see why the governor has latched on to the ad: it gives him an opening to label Raese an elitist and un-West Virginian. The problem is, most West Virginians haven’t seen the ad, let alone heard about its controversial origins – only a handful of the dozens of West Virginian voters I interviewed knew of the furor – which makes it unlikely to have much of an impact come Nov. 2. On the other hand, the fact that Manchin’s accusations have prompted reporters like myself to ask Raese about his residency is, perhaps, the underlying aim of Manchin’s accusations, so to that extent he’s accomplished what he set out to do.