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High stakes in southwest senate election

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Local,Virginia

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Mike Hymes won't be touting his affiliation as a Democrat much in the high stakes special election to fill a vacant southwest Virginia state senate seat.

"Vote for the person is the mantra here," said Hymes.

One of his first acts as a candidate was to release a statement reaffirming "his stance against the war on coal" and denouncing his fellow Democrats President Barack Obama and Gov. Terry McAuliffe for supporting "job-killing regulations."

Hymes works in the human resources department of a coal company and touts his time spent as a coal miner and the fact that he's the son and grandson of coal miners.

"If you look at coal and the things I stand for, I'm for southwest Virginia," said Hymes, who is also a member of the Tazewell County Board of Supervisors.

Asked if he'd accept an offer from McAuliffe to campaign together, Hymes said, "I don't answer hypothetical questions."

Such are the facts of life for a Democrat running in a deep red part corner of the state. The 38th District, which stretches across several counties in the heart of the economically depressed coal country, has voted for statewide Republican candidates by about 30 percentage point margins in recent elections.

Though Hymes is an underdog who is not keen on spending time with the governor, Democrats from around the state are likely to pump big money into his campaign. That's because the Aug. 19 special election will be a high stakes contest to decide which party controls the state Senate.

Former Democratic Sen. Phil Puckett shocked Virginia politics with his sudden resignation on June 9, which gave Republicans control of the upper chamber and weakened McAuliffe's bargaining power with the GOP-controlled House of Delegates.

At the time of his resignation Puckett was negotiating a high-level job with the GOP-controlled Virginia tobacco commission, a situation that launched an investigation by the FBI. Puckett has denied any wrongdoing.

When Virginia Democrats gathered in Richmond for their annual fundraiser dinner earlier this month, several high-profile Democrats asked the assembly party donors and activists to help Hymes.

McAuliffe tried to use the controversy surrounding Puckett's resignation as a rallying cry.

"I didn't like the way it was done, I'll be crystal clear folks, I didn't like it one bit," said McAuliffe. "But I am not deterred because this is going to motivate us."

Hymes' competition is Republican Ben Chafin, an attorney and member of the House of Delegates and Rick Mullins, an independent.

When Puckett ran for re-election in 2011, both he and his Republican challenger spent more than $1 million dollars apiece. Puckett's biggest donors were the state party and Senate Democratic Caucus.

First elected in 1998, Puckett was one of the last conservative rural Democrats in the Senate who managed to keep his seat while his district became more and more Republican. He won his re-election bid by 6 percentage points in 2011, a race in which he publicly renounced support for Obama.

Chafin said the district's voters are ready to elect a Republican senator who represents their conservative values, especially on energy issues. He said Puckett's past successes were due to being well liked, a factor Chafin said wouldn't translate to the current contest.

"My opponent is not Senator Puckett," Chafin said.

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