MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For most of the half-century that the late Robert C. Byrd spent in the U.S. Senate, it was hard to find a Republican to challenge him. He was, even his critics figured, simply unbeatable.
Now, there is no shortage of candidates to fill his shoes: 10 Republicans are seeking the late senator's seat in the special Aug. 28 primary. Each is angry about the direction the country is headed, and each is eager to take on a Democratic challenger this fall.
Most boast of being real people with real struggles, working folks who can relate to other average West Virginians — a cement contractor, a certified public accountant, a substitute teacher's aide, a gas company supervisor, a lawyer and a few retirees.
"I'm the real deal. I'm the average American who works hard to provide for our children," says first-time candidate Lynette McQuain of Baxter. The only woman in the race has had to rely food stamps at times, choosing between buying peanut butter and paying her electric bill.
McQuain says she moved from poverty to the middle class, only to see most of her income go to taxes.
"We don't need another politician, someone wealthy," she says. "We need a real person, a real mom, someone who can make tough decisions."
But there are candidates with deep pockets, too — millionaire stone, steel and media owner John Raese and real estate developer Andrew "Mac" Warner, both of Morgantown.
Raese has lost three previous statewide campaigns, including two for the Senate. He pumped $2.2 million of his own money into a failed 2006 bid to unseat Byrd.
Warner ran his first political race in May, losing the 1st Congressional District primary to former state GOP chairman David McKinley.
While the two have better-known names, they face the same disadvantage — less than a month to distinguish themselves from the pack as they sell what is essentially a universal message.
Nearly every Republican candidate opposes big government, the ballooning federal deficit, overtaxation and overregulation, the health care overhaul, stimulus funding and industry bailouts, and proposed cap-and-trade legislation they believe would harm the coal industry.
Most worry about what they see as an antibusiness climate, the lack of job growth and the lagging ability of the U.S. to complete in the global market.
And they all fear that any Democrat who replaces Byrd — whether it be the front-runner, popular Gov. Joe Manchin, or one of his two opponents — will be a rubber stamp for President Barack Obama's agenda.
"We can take that seat," says newly elected state GOP chairman Mike Stuart, "and it comes down to one simple question: Do you want to send a message to Washington and President Obama? If you do, you have to send a Republican. They won't understand the message if you send a Democrat."
Stuart, an attorney and president of the West Virginia Conservative Foundation, is thrilled to see so many Republicans in the race and balks at picking a front-runner when he hasn't even met all the candidates. But he embraces the fight ahead, eager to confront Manchin on national issues that could hurt West Virginia.
"We like Governor Manchin. He's a good advocate for the state," Stuart says. "The problem becomes how Senator Manchin votes."
Manchin, however, faces primary competition from 95-year-old former secretary of state and congressman Ken Hechler and former state legislator Sheirl Fletcher. Perennial Mountain Party candidate Jesse Johnson is also in the hunt for Byrd's seat.
Hechler is the oldest of the 14 candidates, but Republican Frank Kubic of Charles Town is 84. The retired industrial engineer who calls himself "the wisest man in West Virginia" says he is "just what Congress needs for a year."
"I would do my damnedest to not join any committees," he says, "because all they do is create laws, and all they do is create expenses.
"Old guys are not obsolete. Old people are not useless," Kubic says. "They are the wisest people you can get. They belong in the Senate, and I happen to be one of them."