By Mannix Porterfield
Nick Rahall landed his first term in Congress the same year Jimmy Carter won a four-year lease on the White House.
Carter soon fell in disfavor with American voters and served only one term as president, but Rahall has kept his job in the House of Representatives since that initial victory in 1976.
Next year, the Beckley native will be gunning for his 20th term, passing up a shot at succeeding Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., saying it would be too great a sacrifice for his West Virginia constituents to pay if his seniority in the House suddenly ended.
“I thought about the Senate,” the Democratic congressman acknowledged in a telephone interview Thursday.
“And I had a great deal of encouragement, including financial commitments. But in the end, I decided that leaving my seniority in the House of Representatives, which, by the way is seventh out of 435, and my position on the transportation committee, would be too much of a loss to the people of West Virginia.”
Consider, he said, the loss of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, also D-W.Va., who was the longest-serving senator in history, and Rockefeller’s decision to bow out after his term ends next year.
“I could not in good conscience give up that position to be 100th out of 100 to satisfy my ego in that other body,” the 3rd District congressman said.
Even before Rockefeller announced his career plan, seven-term Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., disclosed her plan to leave the 2nd District and go for his seat in the Senate. Rockefeller won it in 1984 and has held it ever since.
Had Rahall decided to go for the higher office, he said, “It would have been a very competitive race. I feel strongly about that.”
No Republicans have shown their cards yet, but talk has centered around two of them — freshman state Sen. Bill Cole of Mercer County and former Delegate Rick Snuffer of Raleigh.
Snuffer failed in two attempts to unseat Rahall, losing the second time last November, and reiterated his position Thursday he wouldn’t decide about running a third time until the end of the filing period next year, focusing for now on supporting wife Lori and his three sons.
Approached about running himself only a few weeks ago, Cole said he was focused on serving his first year as a state senator, but acknowledged some national Republicans have encouraged him to go for it.
“I love Bill like a brother, and if we do both end up seeking the nomination next May, I can assure you it will be a contest between two gentlemen who have respect for each other,” Snuffer said.
State Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas wasted no time leveling an attack on Rahall, labeling him a “tool of the left,” and suggesting he should be “embarrassed to ask for your vote again,” after siding with Obama and Capitol Hill liberals to hurt the coal industry.
Rahall has characterized himself as an independent, at times backing Republican presidents while on occasion taking exceptions with fellow Democrats in the White House.
“I strongly supported the first George Bush on the first Gulf war and strongly disagreed with the second George Bush on the second war,” he said. “I have opposed Democratic presidents, whether it’s this one or previous ones, on guns and abortion, or prayer in school.”
Rahall said he took exception to President Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, for refusing to surrender documents in the “Fast and Furious” investigation, and said if anyone is deemed at fault in the Benghazi fallout, “they should be held accountable.”
Rahall took exception to Sen. Joe Manchin’s effort to expand background checks on gun buyers — an idea that has triggered opposition from firearms owners and Second Amendment advocacy groups.
A lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, the congressman said, “I’d have to look at it (Manchin’s bill) in depth, but from what I’ve seen, I cannot support it.
“I’m a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” he said. “I turned down (President) Bill Clinton in 1994. He called me on vacation and I refused to support his ban on semi-automatic weapons. And I would refuse this president if he asked me to support any action to take guns away from our law-abiding citizens.”
Although he has been on Capitol Hill since the Carter presidency, Rahall said the job has never grown old.
“I love my job,” he said. “Yes, there are frustrations as with any job. I’ve worked for years and years on a piece of legislation, and ended up at square zero and had to start over. That’s part of life. To be able to help people that are truly deserving when you know they’re qualified to receive some help from the government and are unable to get it, to step in and help deliver that help, is tremendous, and it’s all worth doing the job.”
Rahall said he also finds satisfaction in bringing home the bacon to the 3rd District, whether it has been in highway funding, money for water and sewer projects, or enhancement of the New River Gorge.
“I could go on and on,” he said. “Many projects have been delivered to West Virginia. When you look at my record, I’m tremendously proud of it.”
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