Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is eying Rep. Evan Jenkins as his preferred choice to run against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in 2018.
McConnell and Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, the chairman of the party's Senate campaign arm, have been actively recruiting a slate of midterm candidates since last year, before the presidential campaign concluded. Several Democrats appear vulnerable at the outset of the midterm cycle, and Republicans are hoping to build on their 52-seat Senate majority.
West Virginia is high on their target list, in part because it voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump, and because the state continues to shift right in partisan allegiance at the state and federal level.
A Republican operative with ties to Senate GOP leadership explained the interest in Jenkins, 56, who won his first House term in 2014 by defeating veteran Democrat Nick Rahall, who had managed to survive the Republican wave in 2010. Other potential candidates also are viewed favorably by McConnell and Gardner and are being included in the recruiting process.
"Jenkins is very close to Sen. Manchin's worst nightmare coming into this cycle. He's a fresh face who figured out how to beat a 19-term entrenched Democrat with a profile was strikingly similar to Joe Manchin," the GOP operative said, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to speak candidly about internal deliberations.
"Republicans in West Virginia and nationally have been making calls to Rep. Jenkins since the beginning of the year in the hopes that he decides to run," this Republican source added. "The increasing intensity of those calls seem to indicate that there is some consensus building in the recruitment effort that he would be the best candidate to take on Manchin."
Rahall had long positioned himself as a Democratic centrist, but by 2014 that wasn't enough to overcome challenges caused by his party's lurch to the left, particularly on energy issues. Jenkins defeated Rahall 55 percent to 45 percent.
The West Virginia economy depends on coal mining to a large degree, and regulations imposed on the energy industry under former President Obama — and the overall approach to coal — threatened the livelihood of the state's blue-collar voting base, which has responded by abandoning the Democratic Party.
Manchin is navigating the same treacherous political waters. The former governor has been a popular figure at home. During his first campaign for Senate, a special election in 2010, voters would approach him on the street, or at campaign events, and call him by his first name, rather than his political title.
In that race, and in 2012, when he won his first full Senate term, Manchin managed to differentiate himself from his left-leaning party, as it tilted left and away from its working class roots. The ties to workers had enabled Democrats to remain in power in West Virginia's state capital long after the state started voting Republican for president.
Republicans are confident that, with Jenkins, they would finally be in a position to oust Manchin. They're optimistic in part because the GOP picked up West Virginia's other Senate seat in 2014 and now holds four of six statewide elected offices and all three federal House seats.