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Jenkins announces run for Congress

Jul. 31, 2013 @ 01:17 PM

HUNTINGTON — State Sen. Evan Jenkins ended weeks of speculation Wednesday when he switched his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and announced he will run for West Virginia’s Third Congressional District seat.

Jenkins’ candidacy sets up a scenario in which he will face longtime Democratic incumbent Nick J. Rahall in the 2014 General Election if Jenkins makes it through the GOP primary. No other Republican has declared candidacy for the position.

“This decision comes from the heart, from my years of being in the Democratic Party and seeing the struggle,” Jenkins said during a news conference at the Cabell County Courthouse. “They talk a lot now and you’ll hear words about loyalty and that I’m a traitor. But, I’m telling you, I cannot be loyal to the Obama agenda.”

The 52-year-old attorney and executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association said he will not resign from his Senate seat, meaning he will finish out his term in 2014 as a Republican. Jenkins represents Cabell County and a small portion of Wayne County with Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, in the Fifth Senatorial District.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, removed Jenkins from his leadership positions in the Senate on Tuesday for refusing to dispel rumors that he was switching parties and running for Congress. Kessler said he does not want anyone on his leadership team who does not show decisiveness or loyalty.

Jenkins was chairman of the Minority Affairs and Pension committees. He also was vice chairman of Health and Human Resources Committee.

Jenkins was a registered Republican but switched to the Democratic Party before he entered state politics in the 1990s. He first served in the House of Delegates from 1994 until 2000 when he lost a bid for a seat on the state Supreme Court. He was elected to the state Senate in 2002 and was re-elected in 2006 and 2010.

Jenkins wasted no time during the news conference starting an attack on President Obama’s policies and claiming that Rahall has closely aligned himself to them.

Jenkins’ announcement also gained attention from national Republican leaders who welcomed him to the party.

“Evan recognizes that President Obama’s Democrat Party has lost touch with the people of West Virginia,” Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in a prepared statement. “As Democrats continue to abandon American workers, more leaders like Evan will abandon the Democrat Party.”

Jenkins also is likely to receive support from the National Republican Congressional Committee, which announced in April that Rahall was one of seven Democrats in the House of Representatives that it was targeting for defeat in 2014. All of the House members on the list represent districts that have voted for the Republican nominee for president in the past three elections.

The shifting political landscape in the Mountain State brought on by coal-sympathetic residents furious with President Obama also figures to make a contest between Jenkins and Rahall as among the most intriguing in 2014.

For starters, Democrats represented 61 percent of the registered voters in the 3rd Congressional District in October 2012, down from 68 percent in October 2006.

While the GOP’s representation of registered voters in the district remained unchanged at 22 percent during that same period, independent voters grew from 9 percent to 14 percent.

Rahall also has seen diminishing margins of victory. In 2006, the 19-term incumbent received 69 percent of the vote in the General Election. In 2010, after President Obama’s first two years in office, Rahall received 56 percent of the vote to Elliott “Spike” Maynard’s 44 percent. Rahall defeated GOP candidate Rick Snuffer by only an 8-point margin in 2012.

Rahall said in a phone interview Wednesday that Jenkins should worry about a potentially-contested GOP primary before targeting the Democratic incumbent.

Snuffer issued a statement prior to Jenkins’ news conference saying that should he enter the race, he thinks he would do well.

“Given the difference between Evan’s legislative voting record and mine, plus the large lead I have in the internal polls which Washington conducted between the two of us in a primary contest, our team is confident we can be more than competitive,” Snuffer said.

Regardless of who becomes the GOP’s nominee, Rahall said he expects them to use the same election strategy that the Democrat has faced in the past two elections.

“Every problem we have in this state will be blamed on Obama-Rahall,” he said. “All I can do is travel from one end of this district to another meeting people and not take one vote for granted. I certainly won’t be at home with my family and rely on out-of-state special interests and money to get me across the goal line.”

Rahall also took aim at Jenkins’ party switch, noting that Jenkins donated $500 to his re-election campaign in 2010, two years after Obama was elected.

“This latest opportunity grab of his is purely for self-service, not public service,” Rahall said of Jenkins.

Follow H-D reporter Bryan Chambers on Facebook or Twitter @BryanChambersHD.