Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., one of Republicans' top targets in 2014, may soon get his first challenger: The National Republican Congressional Committee is in the process of recruiting state Sen. Bill Cole to run for the seat. The NRCC sent staffers to West Virginia last week to meet with Cole, according to a national Republican source with knowledge of the talks.
Though his name has surfaced as a potential Rahall challenger, Cole has yet to comment on the race publicly. His meeting with the NRCC is the first sign that he's seriously considering a bid. "[I] certainly believe there's some interest there," the source said.
Neither Cole nor his office responded to multiple requests for comment.
Cole is a newcomer to the political scene, having served just ten months in political office over the last three years. Cole was appointed to a state in the House of Delegates in May 2010, where he served until November and did not seek reelection. He then ran for the state Senate in 2012, defeating incumbent Democratic state Sen. Mark Wills by 14 points in what state Republican Party chairman Conrad Lucas called "one of the most heavily Democratic districts in the state."
Still, Cole has quickly singled himself out as a rising star in the party, according to Lucas. Cole is not unknown among average voters as well; he owns a group of auto dealerships in Bluefield, the third largest city in the district, as well as in Ashland, Ky., which is just across the border from Huntington, the largest. Lucas also cited his philanthropic work in the district, adding: "There's basically nothing in that area that he hasn't touched."
Rahall has yet to announce his reelection campaign and told Hotline On Call in January that he was considering running for retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller's seat. His campaign and office staff did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether he is still considering a Senate bid or run for reelection. But his first quarter fundraising figures seem to indicate that the latter is more likely. Rahall brought in just $142,700 in the first three months of the year, roughly what he raised during the first quarter of 2011, but a far cry from the nearly $1 million GOP Rep. Shelley Moore Capito raised for her Senate campaign.
Should he seek reelection, Rahall will need to pick up the pace. He had only $217,000 in the bank at the end of March, less than half of what he had at this point in 2011.
Though Cole raised just $106,234 for his 2012 campaign, Lucas pointed out that he was probably one of the highest fundraisers for a state Senate seat last cycle. He also loaned his own campaign $190,000 and could potentially self-fund during a congressional campaign as well.
He'll also have the help of the NRCC, which has already named Rahall one of its top targets in 2014 and released a television ad targeting him earlier this month. That ad focused on Rahall's vote for the Progressive Caucus's budget, which would have eliminated corporate tax subsidies for the state's powerful coal industry. That vote, Republicans say, makes Rahall uniquely vulnerable this cycle.
Democratic strategist George Carenbauer argued that Republicans had their best chance to oust Rahall last year, with President Obama atop the ticket. Obama is so unpopular in the state that he lost 41 percent of the 2012 primary vote to a prison inmate (and lost by 27 in the general). Lucas disagreed, noting that West Virginia Democrats have always had trouble during off-years.
Republican Rick Snuffer, who lost to Rahall by eight points in 2012 and was also his party's nominee in 2004, is also considering the seat. The NRCC did not meet with Snuffer while in West Virginia, according to the source.