Why West Virginia’s Governor Might Run for Congress

Earl Ray Tomblin is considering taking an unusual step when he’s termed out of the governor’s office in 2017.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, second from right, would be one in a crowd if he decides to go for a seat in the House.
National Journal
Kimberly Railey
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Kimberly Railey
May 14, 2015, 4 p.m.

After serving two terms as West Vir­gin­ia’s gov­ernor and nearly 17 years as the state Sen­ate pres­id­ent, Demo­crat­ic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin could take an un­usu­al—and, some might say, back­wards—step: run­ning to be­come a fresh­man mem­ber of the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives.

The term-lim­ited Tomblin, whose ten­ure ends in 2017, is mulling a bid in south­ern West Vir­gin­ia against fresh­man Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Evan Jen­kins. With Demo­crat­ic Sen. Joe Manchin passing on a run for gov­ernor next year—and GOP Sen. Shel­ley Moore Capito’s term not ex­pir­ing un­til 2020—a House run looks like the most straight­for­ward path for Tomblin to re­main in pub­lic of­fice.

“If he wants to con­tin­ue in the polit­ic­al pro­cess, that’s the most lo­gic­al place for him to go,” West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic strategist Mike Plante said. “All the stars would align with the tim­ing.”

But beat­ing a GOP in­cum­bent in the con­ser­vat­ive, coal-friendly dis­trict he’s eye­ing wouldn’t be easy, even for Tomblin, a cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive Demo­crat. That polit­ic­al risk, com­bined with the trans­ition from be­ing a chief ex­ec­ut­ive to just one of 435 House mem­bers, has some polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers skep­tic­al that Tomblin will take the plunge.

Tomblin spokes­man Chris St­adel­man told Na­tion­al Journ­al that the gov­ernor is still weigh­ing a run, but offered no timeline on a fi­nal de­cision. Tomblin stirred spec­u­la­tion about his polit­ic­al fu­ture late last month, when he told the As­so­ci­ated Press that he had been ap­proached about a con­gres­sion­al bid but hadn’t made “any fi­nal de­cisions on any­thing yet.”

In the mean­time, Demo­crat­ic lead­ers and strategists are en­thu­si­ast­ic about the pro­spect of his can­did­acy, con­fid­ent that Tomblin would be best suited to topple Jen­kins. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey last month from Glob­al Strategy Group, a Demo­crat­ic con­sult­ing firm, 54 per­cent of West Vir­gini­ans view Tomblin fa­vor­ably, while 32 per­cent view him un­fa­vor­ably. And in his 2012 gubernat­ori­al run, Tomblin car­ried 13 of the 18 counties in the dis­trict where he’d be run­ning.

“The gov­ernor is a proven vote-get­ter, and his views are main­stream in that dis­trict,” said Steve White, a former West Vir­gin­ia Demo­crat­ic Party chair.

Still, tak­ing down Jen­kins would be far from a sure bet.

In 2012, Mitt Rom­ney won the coal-friendly dis­trict, where voters deeply re­ject Pres­id­ent Obama and his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s en­ergy policies, by 32 points. Two years later, the GOP took the seat after link­ing 19-term Demo­crat­ic Rep. Nick Ra­hall to Obama and na­tion­al Demo­crats, even as Ra­hall touted his coal cre­den­tials and in­de­pend­ence from party lead­ers.

Tomblin would likely con­front a sim­il­ar chal­lenge. “There’s been such a strong re­ac­tion that Demo­crats in Wash­ing­ton are anti-coal and out of touch with this dis­trict,” said Re­pub­lic­an state Del. John D. O’Neal IV, who rep­res­ents part of the area as ma­jor­ity whip in the state House of Del­eg­ates. “It’s just tough to make the case.”

With the ex­cep­tion of Manchin, the state’s con­gres­sion­al del­eg­a­tion is en­tirely Re­pub­lic­an. (Just over four years ago, Capito was the only Re­pub­lic­an in the del­eg­a­tion.) In 2014, the party flipped a Sen­ate seat and won two com­pet­it­ive House con­tests, in­clud­ing Jen­kins’s seat.

But Demo­crats say Tomblin, who’s nev­er lost an elec­tion, would be a par­tic­u­larly strong can­did­ate in 2016. Jen­kins’s of­fice did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

Tomblin was elec­ted to the state House of Del­eg­ates in 1974, be­fore win­ning a spot in the state Sen­ate in 1980. He broke the re­cord for the longest-serving Sen­ate pres­id­ent in West Vir­gin­ia’s his­tory be­fore he was ap­poin­ted act­ing gov­ernor when Manchin left for Wash­ing­ton. After win­ning a spe­cial elec­tion for gov­ernor in 2011, Tomblin was reelec­ted in 2012.

“If he were to get in this race, and I think it’s un­likely, he would by ne­ces­sity have to spend the re­mainder of his term as gov­ernor es­sen­tially cam­paign­ing,” said Steve Roberts, pres­id­ent of the West Vir­gin­ia Cham­ber of Com­merce.

The group, which backed Jen­kins last cycle, en­dorsed Tomblin while he was in the state Sen­ate and in his two gubernat­ori­al bids.

If Tomblin does launch a con­gres­sion­al run, he wouldn’t be the first to jump from the gov­ernor’s man­sion to the House: Former Reps. Mi­chael Castle of Delaware and Bill Jank­low of South Dakota once took that route as well. But those states have just one con­gres­sion­al dis­trict apiece, and Castle and Jank­low were still run­ning statewide while Tomblin would be downs­iz­ing. There are more House mem­bers who have run for county-level ex­ec­ut­ive po­s­i­tions in re­cent years than gov­ernors who have de­cided to be­come fresh­man le­gis­lat­ors in the House.

West Vir­gin­ia-based GOP poll­ster Mark Blanken­ship, whose firm worked on Jen­kins’ bid, said of Tomblin, “He would be go­ing out at a pretty high point, so the reas­on­able ques­tion be­comes: Why then would he at­tempt to be­come a fresh­man mem­ber of Con­gress in a hy­per­par­tis­an Con­gress?”

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