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Dems still holding on to District 3 majority

Aug. 02, 2014 @ 10:59 PM

HUNTINGTON -- As the rest of West Virginia has gravitated to a more conservative stance when it comes to voter registration numbers, registered Democrats are still a significant majority in the state's 3rd Congressional District.

In the state's other two districts, the number of registered voters bearing the "D" label has dropped below 50 percent, according to statistics from the West Virginia Secretary of State.

In District 1, 46.5 percent of registered voters are Democrats, and 31.9 percent are Republicans. Independent voters make up 19.1 percent of the demographic.

The Democratic Party machine has slipped further in District 2, with Democrats making up 43.7 percent of registered voters. Thirty-two percent are registered for the GOP, with 22.3 percent having no party affiliation.

But in District 3, where 38-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., is in a pitched battle to keep his seat against state Sen. Evan Jenkins, R-Cabell, Democratic voter totals remain near 60 percent.

In fact, 59.3 percent of registered voters in the 3rd District are Democrats, while Republicans make up 22.5 percent of the voter pool, and 15.7 percent are independents.

In a race where millions of dollars in out-of-state funds have been pouring in since the beginning of the year for attack and defense ads on both sides of the fence, both campaigns releasing poll numbers declaring double-digit leads and a constituent base with an almost visceral hatred for the current presidential administration, the question becomes, do those registration numbers matter?

"Rahall still has, on paper, the advantage of overwhelming Democratic support," said Robert Rupp, professor of history and political science at West Virginia Wesleyan University. "But will (President) Obama's unpopularity trump party loyalty?"

Disenchanted Democrats

Although the Democrats maintain a majority in the 3rd District, the party has lost ground over the past decade.

In 2004, Democrats accounted for 70 percent of the registered voters, and in recent elections Rahall's margins of victory have gotten smaller. In 2004, 2006 and 2008, Rahall won the General Election with more than 65 percent of the vote. But in 2010, his margin dropped to 56 percent, and then in 2012 to 54 percent.

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 likely accelerated the trend. The president's positions on coal, energy and health care reform have made him the most divisive element of the 2014 campaign, with Jenkins taking every opportunity to tie Rahall to the administration, and the incumbent stressing his independence and opposition to many Obama policies, particularly the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency on coal.

Democrats were so displeased with the president that a convicted felon from Texas ran a close second to Obama in 2012 state primary.

"Rahall can't run just on the fact that he's a Democrat when a Democratic president is so unpopular," Rupp said.

What his tactics have indicated, Rupp said, is framing a more "us versus them" type of argument, pointing to the millions that have come from conservative groups outside of West Virginia for a media attack blitz.

But Republicans feel Jenkins can appeal to these disenchanted Democrats, because he is one.

When announcing his candidacy last year, Jenkins also left the Democratic Party he had been a part of during his 17 years in state government.

West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said he believes Jenkins' party switch displayed a bit of courage and leadership.

"He saw that the Democratic Party didn't reflect his values anymore, so he joined the party that did," Lucas said. "From day one of that announcement, I've felt he was the perfect candidate in the perfect election cycle with the perfect message. It's only gotten stronger as things have gone along."

But the party switch could be a bit of a double-edged sword, Rupp said. "Rahall can say, 'I'm loyal, this guy isn't.'"

By the numbers

While Democratic registration has declined, that does not mean Republican registration has increased. In fact the GOP share in the state has hardly changed in 40 years, and remains at about 30 percent of West Virginia's registered voters statewide and 23 percent in the 3rd District. The growth has all been in the "no party" or independent column, increasing from 2 percent in 1976 to 19 percent this summer.

"The fact is Democrats still outnumber Republican voters nearly 2:1 -- we'll gladly take those odds, and will carry them to victory in November," West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Larry Puccio said last month.

"I think the numbers are important," said Daniel van Hoogstraten, communications director for the West Virginia Democratic Party. "I think one of the reasons the numbers have remained so high in the 3rd District is because the people there know Congressman Rahall represents them. They know him very well, and they've helped continue to support him."

The Democratic registration in the 3rd District gives Jenkins a big hill to climb, but turnout will be critical for both sides.

Rahall won with 108,119 in the 2012 presidential year, but turnout is typically lighter in off-year elections, and Rahall's totals were 83,636 in 2010 and 92,413 in 2006. Getting just 37 percent of the district's 246,000 registered Democrats to pull the lever his way could match those numbers again.

Meanwhile, Republican Rick Snuffer polled 92,238 votes in his 2012 race against Rahall. A big Republican turnout and strong showing among independents and disenchanted Democrats could give Jenkins the numbers he needs.

Out of state interest

In essence, both campaigns are running a message of pro-coal, the industry that has shaped the culture of most of the counties that make up the 3rd District. Rahall has to distance himself from his own party to do so, while that same party is spending money to help him keep his seat.

"What Jenkins can say is 'I'll represent you better than Rahall. Rahall is a Democrat so he's one of them," Rupp said.

Those ties to the national political arena -- for both candidates -- are being magnified by the big interest and big money from out of state. Politico.com has called it one of the most closely watched races in the country with estimates of spending by parties and PACs likely to be close to $3.6 million on the race with millions more coming from outside groups that do not have to disclose their outlays.

Both campaigns and the pundits are expecting a tight race.

"The only poll numbers that matter are the ones on election day," the GOP's Lucas said. "I think Evan is very strong, I think he'll win, but Rahall is a very entrenched incumbent. It will be close."

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