Open Seat Watch: West Viginia’s 3rd District

Continuing in our look at open House seat across at the county, we’re going to southern West Virginia. Two-term Rep. Evan Jenkins (R) is leaving the state’s Third District open, as he’s running for Senate.

WV-03 takes up the southern third of the state. In the east, its Allegheny Highlands border Virginia. The district’s central counties are known for their coal production. Finally, its western portion runs along the Ohio River, and is anchored by the city of Huntington:

From the New Deal until roughly the end of the twentieth century, WV-03 was known for its powerful labor unions; it took on serious yellow dog tendencies, which it still retains to an extent. However, more recently, on the Presidential level, WV-03 has been reddening. The most recent Democratic nominee to carry it was Al Gore, in 2000, winning it by about 3%.

In 2008, President Obama became the first Democrat to win the Presidency since 1916 without WV. A combination of the Democrats’ social liberalism and their perceived hostility to coal have meant that WV has moved even right further since. This was most pronounced in southern WV. Last year, President Trump won WV-03 by 3:1 over Secretary Clinton:

 

Other than the Presidential race, all six of West Virginia’s state row offices were up in 2016. Though Republicans won four of them, their candidates, would have, on average, lost in the Third District:

It’s hard to discuss WV-03 without mentioning its longtime Congressman, former Rep. Nick Rahall (D). Rahall was originally in 1976; at the time, his seat was labeled WV-04 but was still based in southern WV. From then until the Obama era, Rahall was reelected easily, only having one close race (in 1990).

In 2008, Rahall won by a typical 2:1, but his margins would shrink steadily in the following cycles. Running in for reelection in the 2010 wave, he was reelected 56/44 against former state judge Spike Mayard (R). Rahall’s relatively close margin showed how nationalized the district’s politics were becoming. For perspective, in the previous Republican wave of 1994, he was reelected with 64%.

Also notable was that Rahall underperfermed the top of the ticket. That year, then-Gov. Joe Manchin (D) was running for the Senate seat once held by the legendary Robert Byrd (D). Manchin was running against gaffe-prone businessman John Raese (R). Though it was competitive at some points, Manchin won his race by 10%, and carried WV-03 by a more comfortable 58/39:

(Mason County, blank in these maps, was added after 2011)

2012 was a historic year for Republicans in West Virginia, in that it was the first time they swept all 55 counties at the federal level. Governor Romney won the state 62/35 against President Obama, with WV-03 being his best district in the state.

Still, ballot-splitting in southern WV was rampant. Sen. Manchin was up for reelection to a full term in 2012. He faced Raese, again, in a rematch that was essentially written off by the national parties. Manchin won reelection 61/36, with his best district also being WV-03. Interestingly, Romney and Manchin got an identical 65.4% vote share, and each won every county:

Meanwhile in 2012, all Democratic candidates for the row offices would have carried WV-03. On average, it leaned Democratic by over 16%:

Despite the broad crossover support for Democrats at the Senatorial and statewide level, Rahall, who’s Congressional race was in the middle, saw his margin drop slightly. He faced a challenge from State Delegate Rick Snuffer (R), who was considered a B-tier candidate. Both hailed from the same county, Raleigh. Snuffer actually ran against Rahall in 2004, and lost by 30%. This time, Rahall won by 54/46; compared to 2010, he improved in parts of coal county, and the Ohio Valley counties, whereas the rest mostly swung to Snuffer:

 

The next cycle, 2014, was the year that nationalization took over in West Virginia. At the Senate level, entrenched Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D) retired. Popular Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) beat out State SOS Natalie Tennant (D) by 28% statewide, though carried WV-03 by a somewhat less punishing 25%.

After their haphazard efforts in WV-03 over the past few cycles, national Republicans made the seat more of a priority. They got a higher-caliber challenger when State Sen. Evan Jenkins switched parties to run against Rahall. Jenkins represented the Huntington area in the legislature, as a Democrat, since 1994, so had a base in the western part of the district. Ultimately, the district traded out Rahall’s nineteen terms of seniority for Jenkins, as a freshman. Jenkins won by 11%, limiting Rahall to just three of the most Democratic counties:

Jenkins was not seriously targeted in 2016. He was reelected by a landslide 68/24, though still ran several points behind Trump.

For 2018, Republicans have three candidates running. Rick Snuffer has announced that he’s making a third attempt at the seat. Another announced candidate is Delegate Rupie Phillips. Phillips has represented heavily Democratic Logan County since 2010. Reelected as a Democrat in 2016, he became an Independent in January, and a Republican in May. House Majority Whip Carol Miller of Huntington is running, as well. Other candidates who could consider the race are Delegate Marty Gearheart, of Mercer County, and current State GOP Chair Conrad Lucas.

Democrats have actually landed two top tier candidates. The first is Sen. Richard Ojeda. Last year, he won his State Senate seat 59/41 while it was giving Trump 78% upballot. A more recent entry was Huntington mayor Steve Williams, who has served since 2012.

As the seat has become red at the federal level, Republicans are favored to retain it, though candidate quality will be important here.