By Mannix Porterfield
For weeks, rumors swirled that Evan Jenkins would become a Republican and challenge Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall for the 3rd District seat he has held since Jimmy Carter was president.
Jenkins made it official Wednesday, announcing he had bolted from the Democratic Party and indeed would try to unseat Rahall next year.
“West Virginia is under attack from Barack Obama and a Democratic Party that our parents and grandparents would not recognize,” Jenkins told reporters at a mid-morning news conference at the Cabell County Courthouse.
“I am proud to join the Republican Party in fighting Washington’s assault on our state, our freedoms, and our jobs.”
Obama is an anathema in coal-producing West Virginia, and like Rahall’s challenger last year — Rick Snuffer — the born-again Republican Jenkins wasted no time linking the incumbent Democrat with the president.
“Nick Rahall is part of the Washington problem,” the state senator said.
“He claims to stand up for coal, but voted for a budget that would destroy coal jobs in West Virginia. We need our member of Congress to fight President Obama’s dangerous agenda, not campaign for it. I will fight for West Virginia’s hard-working families, its small businesses and future generations of West Virginians that deserve to see a brighter and better tomorrow.”
And, in Washington, the long-time congressman swiftly scorned Jenkins’ switch to the GOP.
“Flip flop,” Rahall said.
“How many times is Evan Jenkins going to switch parties? Not for public service, but for self service. Clearly, this time his new-found Republican bosses in Washington have promised him the world. Yet, his promises to West Virginians now ring as hollow as his word.”
Snuffer hasn’t said if he plans to take a third stab at unseating Rahall, but fresh off a second defeat a year ago, the former House of Delegates member certainly hinted that he might do just that.
“Given the difference between Evan’s legislative voting record and mine, plus the large lead I have in the internal polls which Washington conducted between the two of us in a primary contest, our team is confident we can be more than competitive,” Snuffer, a Beckley home builder told The Register-Herald.
Jenkins has been a senator since 2002, representing the 5th District which embraces parts of Cabell and Wayne counties. Before that, he served three terms in the House of Delegates.
Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, wasted no time in dumping the former Democrat from all leadership lots in the chamber, an act he disclosed just hours before Jenkins made his announcement.
That means Jenkins was stripped of his role as chairman of the Minority Affairs and Pensions Committees, and as vice chairman of Health and Human Resources. Kessler didn’t immediately name his successors.
“Refusing to dispel rumors that he is switching to the Republican Party in order to possibly run for Congress shows that he has no allegiance to his Democratic colleagues or the constituents that elected him,” the Senate president said.
“I do not want anyone on my leadership team or in a leadership position that does not show decisiveness or loyalty.”
Now that Jenkins has an “R” after his name, the Republican ranks in the Senate are back in double digits — claiming 10 of the 34 seats.
This isn’t the first time Kessler has moved to dump a dissident from the leadership team.
Soon after Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, challenged him for the Senate presidency, Kessler removed him as chairman of the Energy, Industry and Mining Committee.
Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, who, like Jenkins, had been heavily courted by the National Republican Congressional Committee to run against Rahall, called Jenkins “a diligent and dedicated public servant, who always put his constituents before partisan politics.”
Cole said he “proudly” accepted Jenkins’ invitation to serve as his chairman of his 3rd District campaign.
West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts likewise endorsed Jenkins, calling him “one of the leading lights in West Virginia.”
“He is a person of the highest integrity,” Roberts said.
“His word is his bond. He is one of the most trusted people in the West Virginia Legislature.”
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, also a Republican, said the senator understands the negative impact Obama has had on the state’s economy.
“Jenkins’ background and common-sense approach values are exactly what we need to help supercharge our economy as President Obama and his supporters turn their back on West Virginia,” he said.
Early on, Rahall had indicated he might seek to succeed the retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, also D-W.Va., but has firmed up his bid instead to seek another term. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is giving up her 2nd District seat to run for the Senate. Seven people have filed pre-candidacy papers in hopes of winning her seat.
“After years of supporting Congressman Rahall, it is clear Evan Jenkins is loyal only to the dollar,” state Democratic Chairman Larry Puccio said in a statement.
“When Washington Republican money came a knockin’, Jenkins went a walkin.’ It is a shame that Evan is allowing money and politics to influence his misguided attempt to further his personal political ambition.”
Puccio’s counterpart, state Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas, applauded the decision by Jenkins.
“Sen. Jenkins shows us courage today,” Lucas said.
“Evan Jenkins is a man willing to break free from the chains of 80 years of failed Democratic rule, and take a chance to show our future can be better and brighter for generations to come. We need conservative leaders who stand with businesses and for jobs, not with liberals bent on destroying the economy of the greatest country in the world.”
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