It was just over a month ago that Republicans seemed to be out of options for Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall's seat in West Virginia's Third Congressional District, one of their top targets this cycle. But based on Wednesday's reaction to the news that Democratic state Sen. Evan Jenkins has switched parties to take on the 19-term congressman, it's clear that the party has spent some time recruiting him behind the scenes.
Within an hour of Jenkins' announcement, which leaked in local papers earlier Wednesday, national Republicans blasted out statements from National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Greg Walden, Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, and tweets from House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, all praising Jenkins and welcoming him to the party. The NRCC first caught wind of Jenkins around the time Republican state Sen. Bill Cole announced he wouldn't challenge Rahall, according to a national Republican source. Staffers were on the ground in Huntington, W.Va., Wednesday morning for Jenkins' rollout.
In response, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is blasting out a piece I wrote last month when Cole decided not to enter the race, which said that Cole's decision robbed national Republicans of the final candidate they'd tried to recruit and left them without an obvious challenger for the seat. That may be why Republicans had to turn to the Democratic bench to find their candidate.
Jenkins' entry into the race is great news for Republicans, but his party switch could create some problems of its own. Though Jenkins has served in the state legislature for almost 20 years, he likely won't be able to rely on the same donor base and supporters that have helped him to get elected over the years. But he'll have some help in the form of Cole, who will chair his campaign's finance committee, according to the Republican source. Cole is one of the legislature's strongest fundraisers and, as a major up-and-comer in the state party, could be an asset to Jenkins' campaign.
Jenkins may also have trouble drawing contrast with Rahall as he moves to distance himself from his former party. When asked about the party switch, Jenkins cited his opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the Obama administration's so-called "war on coal." But Rahall has also opposed national Democrats on both of those issues. Rahall has repeatedly lambasted the Environmental Protection Agency over coal issues and, following President Obama's climate change speech last month, he put out a fiery statement calling Obama's policies "misguided, misinformed and untenable." Though he has voted against repealing the Affordable Care Act, Rahall has recently sided with Republicans in taking steps to dismantle aspects of the law, including voting to repeal the law's health insurance tax. The repeal votes will be a sticking point for Rahall, and Jenkins will have to answer for the contribution he made to Rahall's campaign in 2010, long after the Affordable Care Act passed.
National Republicans say they aren't concerned about Jenkins' contribution, noting that it was for a mere $500, and that voters, Jenkins included, have learned a lot more about the Affordable Care Act and its effects since 2010. And they're confident that the "war on coal" line will play better against Rahall than it has in his previous reelection campaigns. The NRCC has repeatedly pointed out that Rahall voted in favor of the House Progressive Caucus budget earlier this year, which would have imposed new taxes on coal.
Jenkins isn't the first Democrat to switch parties in order to take on Rahall. Spike Maynard also switched his party registration before mounting a bid against Rahall and lost by 12 points, despite 2010 being a good year for Republican candidates. But Maynard's campaign was hobbled by his ties to Massey Energy, which was under investigation at the time following a massive disaster that killed 29 miners. When asked about another Democrat potentially switching parties to challenge him earlier this week, Rahall told Politico: "I've dealt with traitors before, and I'll deal with traitors again."