Often times in an election year things don’t really start to heat up until Labor Day weekend.
But that’s not the case in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, where Democratic incumbent and 19-term congressman Nick Rahall is facing a stiff challenge from Republican and State Senator Evan Jenkins of Huntington.
It could be Rahall’s biggest challenge at reelection in recent memory.
Out of 435 nationwide house races only 17 are characterized by realclearpolitics.com as toss-ups.
The Jenkins-Rahall race is one of them.
Rahall is currently the only Democrat congressional House member in the state.
The campaign fired up over the weekend with the news of Alpha’s possible planned layoffs of 1,100 West Virginia surface coal miners. Jenkins at least partly blames Rahall and President Obama, whom Rahall endorsed twice in 2008 and in 2012.
There were more fireworks at Rahall’s “West Virginia Is Not For Sale” Democratic Unity event in Logan last Friday.
Rahall, the 65-year-old Beckley native, had criticized Jenkins for taking outside money for his campaign despite the fact the House Majority PAC, a Democratic group, has spent about $1 million on advertisements either supporting Rahall or attacking Jenkins, according to records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Jenkins then fired back and offered a pledge.
He said both candidates should agree to not accept any more outside money.
Under Jenkins’ proposal, each campaign would have been required to publicly call on such groups to not spend any more money on the congressional race.
Candidates are legally prohibited from any sort of coordination with such outside groups.
Rahall, however, reportedly declined the offer a few hours later.
“It is too bad this topic could not have been discussed before Evan Jenkins sold his sold to New York billionaires,” Sam Raymond, Rahall’s campaign manager wrote, in declining the proposal. “Unfortunately Jenkins’ proposal is more than a year and over $2 million too late.”
At the Logan rally, Rahall offered, “People want to know why I’m not for limiting outside expenditures at this point … It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to fill out, to figure out, what a disadvantage that would put me at if I were to accept that proposal at this late date.”
The Jenkins campaign responded sharply and swiftly, calling Rahall a hypocrite.
“Rarely does a politician actually admit to putting naked self-interest above all else,” said Jenkins strategist Andy Seré in a written statement. “Today, Nick Rahall revealed who he really is: a dishonest hypocrite who’d much rather pocket anti-coal millions to preserve his Washington perks than give West Virginians a voice, while assisting the coal families whose livelihoods he helped Obama destroy.”
Jenkins’ proposal also called on both candidates to refuse donations from political action committees and to donate any money they’ve received so far from PACs to charity.
“If Rahall’s rhetoric is sincere, this pledge is a perfect opportunity for him to demonstrate that he is capable of being honest with West Virginians,” Sere said in an email.
The conservative Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance have spent $2 million to bash Rahall. The liberal House Majority PAC has spent $1.1 million against Jenkins.
Jenkins’ proposal would have also established a “War on Coal Victims Assistance Fund” that would receive the previously donated PAC money. The fund, Jenkins’ campaign said, would offer financial assistance to laid-off coal miners.
Market conditions, competition from natural gas and Obama’s EPA are being blamed for the looming coal line layoffs in Logan, Mingo, Boone, Raleigh and Fayette counties.
A press release by Alpha states, “The Mercury and Air Toxin Standards rule (MATS) will come fully in effect in 2015. Nearly one out of every five coal-fired power plants in the U.S. has closed or will be closed due at least in part to EPA regulations. The looming EPA regulations on carbon emissions for both new and existing power plants have created uncertainty in the future of power generation. In fact, some mines affected by this WARN Notice were directly impacted by plant closures due to EPA regulations (i.e. these mines supplied coal to the power plants). Altogether, industry forecasts for next year indicate that coal production from Central App will be less than half the region’s output in 2009.”
Jenkins released the following statement in response to the devestating news, putting Rahall up front and center.
“Southern West Virginia’s economy and its coal families are in full crisis mode,” he said. “These mass layoffs are just the latest in a devastating pattern of coal job losses across this district. Our people and our way of life are truly under attack. It makes my blood boil to know that Nick Rahall voted repeatedly for these very regulations the company cites in its WARN Notice, helped elect the president whose EPA is implementing those regulations, and recently attributed the lack of coal jobs to miners whom he alleged can’t pass a drug test. He’s wrong — it’s Nick Rahall himself who is directly responsible for the destruction of these families’ livelihoods. Even more outrageous is that the Obama-backed House Majority PAC — which has spent over $1 million to re-elect Nick Rahall, with far more promised in the fall — officially endorsed the new Obama power plant regulations cited by Alpha. Yet Nick Rahall is happily — shamelessly — lapping up millions from the very people who are surely rejoicing at the success they’re having in their War on Coal.”
Jenkins continued to blast Rahall.
“EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy — whose job performance Rahall endorsed almost one year ago today — recently admitted she’s waging a deliberate war on coal; she, President Obama, and House Majority PAC have Nick Rahall’s loyalty to thank for the mass job losses they intended, and in fact have already returned the favor by showering his campaign with over a million dollars. It should sicken every coal worker and every family affected by this WARN Notice that their own congressman has betrayed them in the most hurtful way possible,” Jenkins said in a written statement on his website.
To his credit, Rahall has denounced Obama’s EPA as “callous” and attacked its biggest greenhouse gas rule as “disastrous” and has filed legislation to block the heart of the president’s climate change agenda.
Rahall has tried to distance himself from Obama even though he supported the president in each of the last two presidential elections and championed the unpopular Obamacare legislation.
In the six-year election cycle of a reelected president, it’s often the other party who tends to gain seats in a mid-term election. Most recently in 2006, that’s when the Democrats regained control of Congress with President Bush’s approval ratings dropping to historic lows.
Even though he’s not on the ballot, Obama is seen as a major drag to many candidates in key states, political pundits have observed.
The Jenkins campaign is attempting to tie Rahall to Obama and the president’s “War on Coal” in order to snatch a political upset this November.
Obama is deeply unpopular in Coal Country.
After initially endorsing Obama in 2008 the United Mine Workers Association declined to do so in 2012.
Since the days of FDR, Logan County had always voted for the Democratic candidate — and often times by wide margins — in the presidential elections.
Logan County was once very, very blue in federal elections.
In 1972, President Nixon carried 49 states as his Democrat challenger George McGovern was only able to carry his home state of Massachusetts.
Nixon took West Virginia and won in every county except for Logan.
Then in 2008, John McCain and running mate Sarah Palin pulled off a stunner in the world of local politics by beating the Obama/Biden ticket by 11 points, 54-43 percent. It was believed to be the first time the GOP had won in Logan County since before the Great Depression.
In 2012, the margin grew much wider as Mitt Romney carried Logan County by a whopping 40 points, 69-29, over Obama.
Just how unpopular is Obama in Rahall’s Third Congressional District?
Texas inmate Keith Russell Judd, who somehow was able to get on the ballot in the 2012 West Virginia Democratic Presidential Primary, won 41 percent of the state’s votes. Judd carried 10 of the state’s 55 counties, including Logan.
In neighboring Mingo County, the prisoner won his biggest victory by a stunning 22 points, 61-39, over President Obama.
This spring, Rahall had to fight off Democratic primary challenger, Richard Ojeda, winning 66-34. Ojeda was able to carry his home county of Logan.
On March 6, 2008 Rahall endorsed Obama telling the Associated Press, “Obama understands the needs and aspirations of West Virginians.”
Rahall endorsed Obama again in 2012, saying, “I’m supporting Democrats this November, and that includes the Democratic nominee for president. It is true, (Obama’s) people need to understand coal is going to be around a lot longer than they are. But, the war on coal is coming from many fronts.”
Last Friday, Rahall offered the following statement about the Alpha layoffs:
“Alpha’s notification to its employees about potential layoffs later this year is painful news. The announcement is further evidence of the toll that market forces, including the low cost and abundance of natural gas, have taken on coal jobs. But it is also incredibly frustrating to have an agency like the EPA being so purposefully blind to the effects of its policies on the economy and the lives of hard-working families. I stand firm with our coal miners and will continue, at every opportunity, to help advance legislation in the House to block job-killing regulations. I hope the Senate will follow suit. Ultimately, I am hopeful that these WARN notices are precautionary and that Alpha can find the means to avert these layoffs.”
The Rahall-Jenkins race remains close.
Despite an early poll showing Jenkins in the lead by 14 points, most polls are now showing Rahall at least slightly ahead.
The electionprojection.com current polling data has Rahall up by 1.6 points.
A poll in late May had Rahall leading Jenkins by 13 points.
A recent poll conducted by Harper Polling showed Rahall leading by a 46-42 margin.
Rahall beats his GOP challenger, Rick Snuffer, by a 54-46 margin in 2012.
Rahall has been in office since 1977.