Here's an astonishing poll: David Freddoso at Conservative Intelligence Briefing links to a report by the Washington Post's Aaron Blake that West Virginia 3rd district incumbent Rep. Nick Rahall trails Republican challenger state Sen. Evan Jenkins by a 54-percent to 40-percent margin. The poll was conducted by the Tarrance Group, a Republican firm which, like several Democratic and other Republican firms, has had a good record for reliability over the years.
This is astonishing for several reasons. Rahall, first elected in 1976, is now the seventh most senior member of the House, with three of the more senior members retiring (John Dingell, Henry Waxman, George Miller) and another with a serious primary challenge (Charlie Rangel). Moreover, his district in southern West Virginia has historically been very Democratic; in its previous boundaries it voted for Walter Mondale over Ronald Reagan in 1984. Rahall won in 1976 by 46 percent to 37 percent over Ken Hechler, his predecessor in the seat, who after losing a Democratic primary for governor ran as a write-in candidate; the Republican nominee received only 18 percent of the vote. From 1978 to 2008, Rahall was re-elected with at least 64 percent of the vote, except in 1990 when he beat Republican Marianne Brewster by only 52 percent to 48 percent.
But this is coal country, and Rahall's margins have gone down after President Obama was elected president. In 2010, Rahall won by a reduced margin of 56 percent to 44 percent, and in 2012, his margin was only 54 percent to 46 percent. Obama's unpopularity surely cost him: John McCain carried the district within its then-boundaries by a 56-percent to 42-percent margin in 2008, and Mitt Romney carried the current district 65 percent to 33 percent in 2012. Rahall is ranking Democrat on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and was Chairman of the Natural Resources Committee when Democrats had a majority in the House; these are committee positions of importance to a mountainous coal district, but apparently they are not enough to help him now.
Rahall is obviously on the defensive. A Wednesday story in The Hill quotes him as saying that Obama has “probably not” been good for West Virginia overall and that “ I probably have supported George Bush more than I have Barack Obama.” He went on to say, “Am I going to switch parties because of that? No. I'm a Democrat, born a Democrat, am a Democrat and will die a Democrat.” Rahall went on to say that his polling shows quite a different race from the Tarrance Group poll.
In any case, Rahall's campaign has an appealing ad claiming that anti-Rahall ads are paid for by “New York billionaires.” The congressman clearly knows he is in a real fight in a district that last elected a Republican congressman in 1956, when Dwight Eisenhower was on the ballot.