By Mannix Porterfield
Just a few scant years ago, Nick Rahall and Evan Jenkins seemed to be political allies.
In fact, the two put up some cash to each other’s re-election campaigns as fellow Democratic candidates are known to do. No surprise there.
Now, the two are poles apart, politically speaking, that is.
And unless he stumbles in the 2014 primary, Jenkins is destined to square off with the veteran congressman for the right to represent the 3rd District of West Virginia.
Jenkins bade farewell to the Democratic Party last week, switched his registration to Republican, then promptly filed for Rahall’s seat.
Rahall immediately termed him a “flip flop” with a history of instability.
With some justification, too.
Fresh out of college, Jenkins was a Republican, then turned to the Democrats, where he stayed through three terms in the House of Delegates, and his successful bid for a third term in the Senate.
“You kind of follow your heart,” the state senator said, when asked about the latest switch.
“You’ve got to follow what you think is in the best interest of the people of the 3rd District. I think voters understand why I have made the change and why I’m wanting to be a Republican in Congress. This race is very simple. You have a president who’s leading Obama Democrats that are focused on four things: amnesty immigration, limitations on the Second Amendment, a war on coal agenda that will decimate coal jobs in West Virginia and a government takeover of our health care system through Obamacare.”
First elected in 1976, the year Jimmy Carter won the White House, Rahall the incumbent has never lost over nearly four decades, but says he never takes anything for granted.
“I follow my late mentor (Sen.) Robert C. Byrd’s advice and that is, there’s only two ways to run — unopposed or scared,” Rahall said.
“I’ll be working hard. Not sitting at home by the fireside just expecting outside special interests to buy it for me. That’s been the normal pattern of my GOP opponents. I don’t take a single vote for granted.”
And that, in a nutshell, looms as the tenor of this campaign — Jenkins painting Rahall as an Obama lapdog, and Rahall linking his challenger to some hefty money poured in by Republican heavyweights well beyond West Virginia’s borders.
Of course, Jenkins must first win the GOP nomination, and two-time loser Rick Snuffer might have something to say about that.
Snuffer lost last fall in a race that was much closer than the final score suggests, but hasn’t publicly said if he intends to see if the third time out against Rahall is the charm.
While welcoming Jenkins to the GOP ranks, Snuffer let fly a strong hint that if he did file for the primary, Jenkins’ voting record as a state senator contrasts sharply with the conservative Republicans and it would come into play.
Jenkins intends to hold on to his Senate seat, albeit he now has all the clout of a freshman, since Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, bumped him as chairman of two committees — minority and pensions — and as vice chairman of health and human resources.
Jenkins says he bears no ill-will toward Kessler but pointed out that in the latter’s failed campaign for governor two years ago he collected a mere four votes among 40,000 people in Logan County.
“Which is pretty telling of the level of support in southern West Virginia of the Obama Democrat agenda,” Jenkins said.
Kessler questioned Jenkins’ loyalty by switching uniforms, which the senator found funny, saying, “I’m not loyal to the Obama-Rahall-Pelosi agenda.”
“I needed to leave the party and join a party that represents better values and priorities that I think are most important,” Jenkins said.
Rahall expects Jenkins to attempt to link him to Obama, immensely unpopular in West Virginia over the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on the coal industry, and the president’s bid to impose rigid new controls on the sale of firearms.
The Democratic incumbent is quick to point out he has disagreed with Obama on a number of issues — gun control, gay rights, abortion, immigration, trade deals, the contempt citation sought against Attorney General Eric Holder in the “fast and furious” debacle, the snooping on Americans by the NSA and Afghanistan.
“You know the issues with which I disagree with the president,” he said, laughing at the challenger’s effort to paint him as an Obama toady.
“I dare say so more than any Republican president we’ve had. Remember early on in this administration, Republicans kept telling us to get over it, quit blaming George Bush for everything? When are they going to get over blaming Barack Obama for everything? It’s six years now. Guess what? He was re-elected.”
Rahall says he is accustomed to Democrats leaping the fence and trying to unseat him as a Republican, pointing to former state Supreme Court Justice Spike Maynard’s ill-fated campaign in 2010.
“Remember,” he says of Jenkins, “he was a Republican before he was a Democrat before he was a Republican again.”
Jenkins counters by saying that keeping Rahall in Congress is, in effect, a vote for Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the former House speaker, and Democratic control of the House.
“And that’s simply unacceptable,” the challenger said.
“Right now, the only check and balance we have on the Obama-Rahall-Pelosi agenda is a Republican-controlled House. If we lose that, we’ve lost it all. My candidacy, my philosophy, matches up squarely with the Republicans and southern West Virginia. The 3rd Congressional District can send Obama a very clear message on Election Day by electing Evan Jenkins, a Republican, to stop the Obama agenda.”
Jenkins represents the 5th District, engulfing Cabell County, most populous in the 3rd, and parts of Wayne County.
Is Cabell the key to the election, given the fact Rahall has always fared well there, while losing his home county of Raleigh?
“I don’t buy that at all,” Rahall answered, when asked if Jenkins would have a distinct advantage on his home turf.
“I could go down to projects for which I’m responsible in Cabell County and which they recognize. So no, I don’t buy that strategy whatsoever.”
Jenkins views Cabell as “critical,” however, pointing out in recent elections the GOP candidate has lost miserably there, while Rahall has been outdone in Raleigh.
“Rahall has always eked out a victory based on winning Cabell and Wayne,” Jenkins said.
On one point, both men are in harmony — a pledge to air the issues in public debates.
“Absolutely,” Rahall said.
“I hope to see him somewhere. But in the last election, I never saw hide nor hair of my Republican opponent.”
Jenkins indicated he savors the opportunity to clash with Rahall in a public debate.
“It will be an opportunity for him to explain why he helped push through Obamacare,” the senator said.
“And why he voted for the aggressive budget that would have devastated our coal jobs and the coal industry. He’s got a lot of explaining to do and debates are a great opportunity for that.”
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