Beating Rahall a real possibility

Keeping one’s campaign strategy close to the vest is common among politicians. But West Virginia Sen. Evan Jenkins’ plan is so obvious there’s no reason to be coy about it.

Jenkins, formerly D-Cabell, made two announcements a few days ago. First, he switched to the Republican Party. Second, he’s running for Congress against incumbent Rep. Nick Rahall, who has represented southern West Virginia for more than three decades as a Democrat.

Here’s how Jenkins puts it on his brand-new website: “After 17 years as a Democrat serving in West Virginia’s state legislature, I am leaving Barack Obama’s party …”

Running against Obama works in West Virginia. That’s part of the reason Rep. David McKinley, also a Republican, won a seat in Congress from this region of the state.

At first glance, though, Jenkins’ campaign may appear to be more risky. It’s one thing to have Republican McKinley from this region and another GOP stalwart, Rep. Shelley Capito, from central West Virginia (a Republican is likely to succeed Capito when she moves to the Senate). But the southern coalfields have been a reliable Democrat stronghold.

In fact, if I’m not mistaken, it has been more than 90 years since the state’s entire delegation to the House consisted of Republicans.

Oddsmakers may look at voter registration in the 18-county Third Congressional District and conclude Jenkins doesn’t have a chance. Democrats outnumber Republicans by 251,460 to 92,628. But that’s far from the whole story. The district also includes more than 61,000 voters registered as “no party” or for other political organizations, such as the Mountain Party. The vast majority of those rebels are fed up with both major parties – but at the present, more so with Democrats.

During elections before President Barack Obama came on the national stage, you had to be politically suicidal to challenge Rahall as a Republican. In 2006, he won re-election with 69 percent of the vote. Even in 2008, when West Virginians voted against Obama and for Republican John McCain, Rahall’s district sent him back to Washington with 67 percent of the vote.

Then Obama launched his war on coal, which happens to be a way of life in many Third District counties. In 2010, Rahall managed only 56 percent of the vote against Republican Elliott “Spike” Maynard. Then last year, against GOP contender Rick Snuffer, Rahall’s name was checked on just 54 percent of the ballots. One interesting aspect of that race was that Snuffer had run against Rahall before, in 2004 – and had been thrashed by a nearly two-to-one margin.

It already has been pointed out Jenkins has at least one ace in the hole: He’s from Cabell County, the largest county in the district, and is very popular among Democrats there.

Another advantage is that the national Republican organization wants to hold on to its majority in the House of Representatives – and has targeted Rahall as a Democrat whose seat could be picked up by a GOP challenger. Jenkins can expect help, both financially and from national Republican figures, in his campaign.

Not so long ago, it would have been the kiss of political death for Jenkins to abandon the Democrat Party in southern West Virginia. Many people there don’t date support for the party in years, but in generations.

But Obama, with help from other party leaders such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has made it clear that if he had his way, every coal mine in West Virginia would close tomorrow. Abandoning a party whose leaders have that attitude is not seen as desertion, but as self-preservation.

And while national Democrat leaders may want to support Rahall, money will be about all they can do for him. He’s smart enough that he may already have called the White House – with a plea for Barack Obama to stay out of the Mountain State during the next year or so.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at