WHEELING - The Northern Panhandle will have plenty to say about whether Republicans take control of the West Virginia House of Delegates for the first time since 1930, state GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said.
Meanwhile, local Democrat leaders hope widespread disapproval of the Obama administration across the Mountain State - where the president failed to win a single county in his 2012 re-election bid - won't draw voters' focus away from issues at the state level.
Two years after the GOP picked up 11 seats in the House of Delegates to bring their total to 46 out of 100 - now 47 following Ryan Ferns' party switch - Lucas is confident 2014 will be the year the scales tip in their favor. He pointed out Republicans are fielding candidates for every seat in the Legislature that's on the ballot this year, while Democrats have left 19 seats currently held by Republicans uncontested.
Lucas believes in years past, Republicans were discouraged from seeking legislative office in West Virginia because they believed they stood little chance of making a difference as members of the minority party.
"For this year in particular, people see the opportunity to be a part of something truly special. ... It became an attractive thing for conservative Republicans to be a part of," he said.
Lucas said the GOP has its eyes on several seats in the Northern Panhandle.
On the House of Delegates side, he expects former Delegate Pat McGeehan - who mulled a run for U.S. Senate - to pose a formidable challenge to Democrats Randy Swartzmiller and Ronnie Jones, both D-Hancock, in the 1st District, and he also believes Ryan Weld, a 33-year-old law student and veteran of the war in Afghanistan, will appeal to voters in the 2nd District, where incumbent Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, nearly lost to GOP challenger Lynn Davis in 2012.
Lucas believes this year also presents an opportunity to make inroads in the state Senate, which remains solidly in Democrat hands.
"The Northern Panhandle is going to play an important role in our strategy in this election. ... Every district is going to be competitive," Lucas said.
Ohio County Democrat Party Co-Chairman John Saunders said he is pleased with the level of competition particularly in the 3rd District, where seven candidates - three Democrats and four Republicans - will vie for two seats, one held by incumbent Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, and the soon-to-be-open seat of Ferns, who is running for the state Senate.
What stands out to Saunders is a rash of new - and, often, younger - faces among office-seekers this year, motivated by anger at what they're seeing out of government in Washington.
"I think it's a good thing for both parties. I think it's a good thing for the (3rd) District," Saunders said. "People are starting to show an interest."
Saunders acknowledged Democrats were taken by surprise at the gains the GOP made in the Legislature in 2012, but he believes the party is fielding enough strong candidates to hold onto its majority in the House - and perhaps gain a few seats.
He attributes the Democrats' disappointing 2012 in part to Obama's unpopularity, but he doesn't believe that should carry over into this election.
"I would hope that this election cycle in this state, we talk not about Barack Obama but we talk about oil and gas, we talk about the budget cuts, we talk about education. ... ," Saunders said. "Federal issues aren't going to get settled in the West Virginia Legislature, and Barack Obama can't run anymore. We can't run from Barack Obama, but Barack Obama's not going to be on the ballot anywhere that I know of in 2014."
Neither West Virginia Democrat Party Chairman Larry Puccio nor Ohio County Republican Party Chairwoman Patty Levenson could be reached for comment.