A West Virginia congressional district that gave Donald Trump a 50-point margin of victory in 2016 seems an unlikely place for a competitive midterm race.
But an open seat in the state’s rural Third District has generated a crowded primary ticket, with seven Republicans and four Democrats, including the immediate past chairman of the state Republican Party and a populist state senator who attracted national attention during the West Virginia teachers strike.
The district has voted by increasing margins for Republican presidential candidates since 2004 before spiking in 2016, when it delivered 73 percent of its vote for Donald Trump.It ranks as the 16th most rural district in the United States, is 94.4 percent white, and has a below-average number of people with college degrees: 15 percent, versus a national average of nearly 40 percent. All of those metrics suggest a strong Republican lean.
And yet, WV-3 was until 2015 represented by a Democrat, 38-year incumbent Nick Rahall, who held out longer than most of his peers in rural Appalachian districts. U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, the former-Democrat-turned-Republican who defeated Rahall, now is seeking the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, leaving an open seat in West Virginia.
The politics in this rural mountain district could go in a variety of directions. The district’s largest city is Huntington, with just under 50,000 residents, followed by Beckley (17,000), Bluefield (10,000), and Princeton (6,000). The district’s southwestern counties form the heart of West Virginia’s coal country, with those to the east being more focused on farming and forestry.
The district has long supported Democrats, with Jenkins the first Republican to hold it for longer than a single term since the 1920s. Al Gore narrowly won the district in 2000, but he was the final Democrat to do so. WV-3’s presidential vote has increasingly tilted Republican ever since, culminating in Trump’s 50-point margin in 2016. Even so, WV-3 voted more strongly for Democrat Joe Manchin in his 2012 run for U.S. Senate than either of West Virginia’s other two congressional districts.
Among the seven Republicans running for the nomination are a former state party chairman, numerous state lawmakers both past and present, and at least two former Democrats apparently seeking to replicate Jenkins’ path to Congress. Former West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas is building a campaign organization that may lend it an edge on the ground. State Delegate Carol Miller, who farms buffalo, is a second-generation Republican whose father represented a district around Columbus, Ohio, in Congress. State Delegate Rupert “Rupie” Phillips was a Democrat until last year, but his “God, coal and guns” platform represents a trifecta of wedge issues for West Virginians. The rest of the GOP field consists of present and former elected officials, a physician, and a veteran of the war in Iraq.
Four Democrats are also running, including charismatic populist Richard Ojeda, a U.S. Army veteran who unsuccessfully ran against Rahall in the 2014 primary before winning election to the state Senate in 2016.
Ojeda’s no-holds-barred approach to politics, regular engagement on Facebook Live, outspoken support of teachers during the statewide #55strong strike and personal story have elevated his profile to the point where he’s been the focus of stories in national and international publications that include Politico Magazine, the Guardian, and the New Republic.
West Virginia’s Third Congressional District stands out from many other rural districts in part for its intense dislike of national Democrats such as former President Barack Obama and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, said Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University. That comes largely from the economic dominance of the coal industry in southern West Virginia.
“I don’t think anywhere else in the country have you seen so many ads portraying Clinton and Obama as the enemy of the industry the district is associated with,” Crichlow said. “The pervasiveness of the ‘war on coal’ language across years makes that district different than upstate New York or Maine or other rural areas.”
Democrats still hold an advantage over Republicans in the number of registered voters, but “Democrat” means something quite different in West Virginia than it does in many other places. Take, for example, two individuals from Mingo County who I spoke to during the teachers strike earlier this year. One, a stalwart Republican, told me she was ashamed of the party’s leadership in the state Legislature during that time. The other proclaimed himself a proud Democrat, though he expressed anger at Obama over the Affordable Care Act and said that Clinton should have stayed out of West Virginia.
Both of them liked Ojeda, whose floor speeches and Facebook Live videos during the strike endeared him to teachers and elevated his profile to that of political folk hero among unions and educators. That gives him a leg-up in the primary, as well as a national profile that may draw the financial support he’ll likely need to run uphill in such a Republican-leaning district.
“If he’s not going to raise more money than he has, you still wonder about that,” Crichlow said, “but the teachers strike will be very important in more locally focused races, including that one. It does seem like he’s coming out as the star of the strike.”
Will that be enough to propel the Logan County Democrat to victory in a district that is rated “Likely Republican” at Sabato’s Crystal Ball and isn’t even on the radar at the Cook Political Report?
We’ll get a better sense of that after West Virginia’s primaries on May 8, but the final answer comes November 6.