When this seat opened up with the death of longtime incumbent Robert Byrd, everyone figured that Governor Joe Manchin would run for the Democratic nomination to fill the rest of Byrd’s term.  No one was sure whether Manchin would get a serious Republican challenger, though, because conventional wisdom held that Manchin would wallop any Republican who dared.  Shelley Moore Capito declined to run, and instead a West Virginia businessman decided to become the sacrificial lamb to Manchin’s preordained victory.

Except that a funny thing happened on the way to the landslide — West Virginia voters have started to question whether they want to send a Democrat to Washington again.  According to the latest Rasmussen poll, Manchin doesn’t get to 50% among likely Mountaineer voters, and John Raese looks a lot more like a serious candidate than a sacrifice at just six points back:

In the first Rasmussen Reports post-primary survey of West Virginia’s U.S. Senate race, Democratic Governor Joe Manchin attracts 48% of the vote while Republican businessman John Raese earns 42%.

The latest statewide telephone survey of Likely Voters shows four percent (4%) prefer some other candidate while seven percent (7%) are undecided.

Just after state legislators officially approved a special Senate election this year to replace the late Robert Byrd, Manchin led Raese by a 51% to 35% margin.

Even the previous Rasmussen poll came as a surprise.  Given Manchin’s high job approval ratings as governor, everyone expected the race to be a walkover.  Even with voters barely knowing the name of Manchin’s challenger, though, they didn’t rush to get behind him, and now Manchin has lost 10 points in the gap.

Rasmussen notes the reason for this seeming contradiction:

While Manchin holds a dominant lead among voters who Strongly Approve of his performance as governor, the race is a virtual tie among those who Somewhat Approve of Manchin’s job.

Perhaps one explanation for this divide is that among those voters who Somewhat Approve of Manchin’s performance, 64% Strongly Disapprove of President Obama’s performance.

Raese only holds a narrow lead among independents in the state, 45/40, but that may change, too.  As a Democrat, one can presume that Manchin won’t fight to repeal or defund ObamaCare — or at least won’t fight very hard.  That would put him at odds with the independents in WV, 73% of whom oppose the mandates in ObamaCare, 65% strongly opposing.  A solid majority want states to sue the federal government to block the ObamaCare mandates. A majority of Democrats also oppose ObamaCare (53%, with 36% strongly opposing).

That’s not the only area where Manchin is likely to lose the unaffiliated voters.  Three-quarters of independents want the Bush tax cuts extended, and 64% of indies want all of the tax cuts extended.  Why?  Because 94% of independent voters think the economy is lousy, with 24% saying “fair” and 70% “poor.”  Sixty-five percent also say it’s getting worse rather than better (8%).

Seventy percent of independents approve of Manchin’s performance as governor, but if they send him to Washington, he won’t be in charge of the agenda.  Only 15% of independents approve of Obama’s performance, while 78% of them strongly disapprove.  Those voters won’t be anxious to send Manchin to the Senate to enable more of the Obama-Nancy Pelosi- Harry Reid agenda.  That 51% rating from before the primary may start looking pretty tasty to Manchin, and there’s now a strong possibility that the people of West Virginia may leave Manchin in the job they apparently want him to keep.  This race is far from over.