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Democrats Look for Inroads in Trump-Friendly West Virginia

DCCC is targeting two of the state’s three House districts

West Virginia’s 2nd and 3rd districts voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump in 2016. (Map courtesy iStock, composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
West Virginia’s 2nd and 3rd districts voted overwhelmingly for President Donald Trump in 2016. (Map courtesy iStock, composition by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)

Few states have trended further away from Democrats over the last decade than West Virginia.

President Donald Trump carried the state by 42 points in 2016. Appearing at a rally with the president last year, the state’s governor, who was elected as a Democrat in 2016, switched to the Republican Party.

But in their quest to win the House majority, Democrats are targeting two out of the state’s three congressional districts, including one Trump carried by an even bigger margin than his statewide victory. (And that’s the seat Democrats think they have a “better” chance of flipping.)

Democrats know they’re looking at reaches in the 2nd and 3rd district contests, both of which Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as Solid Republican.

They’re optimistic that with Sen. Joe Manchin III at the top of the ticket (he told The New York Times he’s filing his re-election papers just before this weekend’s deadline), down-ballot candidates in both districts can ride the coattails of a Democrat with a distinct brand in the state. 

And Democrats think working-class voters will be turned off by parts of the congressional Republicans’ agenda.

“People see the Republicans as taking their health care; they see that they played with their miners’ pensions; they know the tax plan is not benefiting them,” one Democrat in the state said. 

“I’m not saying the Democratic Party is popular, but I’m saying the Republican Party is also damaged,” the Democrat added. 

Watch: Your Guide to the 2018 Midterm Primaries

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The open seat 

Trump carried the 3rd District in the southern part of West Virginia by 49 points. But Democrats see it as the better pickup opportunity because it’s an open seat. GOP incumbent Evan Jenkins is running for Senate

The Democratic field has shifted recently. Last week, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams dropped out of the race and 84-year-old state Del. Shirley Love, a longtime newscaster, joined it. That’s left state Sen. Richard Ojeda the likely front-runner in the May 8 primary. 

Ojeda, elected to the state Senate as a Democrat in 2016, voted for Trump — as did 73 percent of the district.

“A lot of people are starting to realize it’s not going to happen,” he said Wednesday about Trump’s promise to bring back coal jobs. 

Ojeda’s campaign video opens with him pumping iron and recounting how he was physically attacked at a campaign barbecue days before the state Senate primary.

As Ojeda tells it, a man asked him for bumper stickers. As Ojeda was putting them on the man’s truck, the man struck him from behind. Police told The New York Times the man then tried to drive his truck toward Ojeda, who was lying on the ground.  

Democrats like that Ojeda combines an outsider personality with the credibility of an elected official.

“I’m nothing but a ball of energy,” he said.

Ojeda is praised for helping push the legalization of medicinal marijuana through the Legislature. He previously ran for Congress in 2014, when he challenged former Rep. Nick J. Rahall II in the Democratic primary, but lost by 32 points.

This cycle, Ojeda said he’s spoken with Reps. Tim Ryan of Ohio, Ro Khanna of California and John Yarmuth of Kentucky about his candidacy. 

The Army veteran has earned national press over the past year, with prominent treatment in the New Yorker, and in The New Republic where he was described as “a new kind of West Virginia Democrat.”

But he hasn’t been able to turn that attention into a fundraising base. He ended the third quarter with less than $4,000 in the bank. Ojeda said Wednesday he raised $30,000 in the fourth quarter and that forthcoming union endorsements could help him raise more money. 

Republicans have a crowded primary, with most operatives identifying former state GOP chairman Conrad Lucas and state Del. Carol Miller, a bison farmer, as the likely front-runners. Both are from the Huntington area, which is the major population center of the district. Candidates’ home counties are listed on the ballot next to their names.

Lucas doesn’t have a voting record to attack and has a strong network from having chaired the party. But he might not have the built-in base Miller has as a state legislator with constituents.

Miller’s father was Ohio congressman Samuel L. Devine. Her family owns local car dealerships and she could bring some money to the race. Miller ended the third quarter with $134,000. Lucas hasn’t yet had to file a fundraising report. 

The Club for Growth’s PAC hasn’t yet decided to get in the race, but the conservative outside group likes state Del. Marty Gearheart, who only filed with the Federal Election Commission earlier this month. 

Among the other candidates are two former Democrats. That’s hardly a disqualification in this state. Jenkins was a Democrat before he switched parties in 2013 to successfully take on Rahall, ending his 38-year congressional career.

But even when Rahall was still in office, the 3rd District was trending Republican at the presidential level. Mitt Romney carried it by 32 points in 2012 and John McCain by 13 points in 2008. 

The 2nd District

Democrats love to attack 2nd District Rep. Alex X. Mooney as a carpetbagger.

The former chairman of the Maryland Republican Party moved to the state to run for Congress in 2014, and he won — by just 3 points in a good year for Republicans.

Last cycle, national Democrats wanted to target the Freedom Caucus member, but the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s preferred candidate didn’t make it through the primary.

This time around, Democrats still think Mooney’s vulnerable. They’re attacking him for moving into the state to run for office, for voting to repeal the 2010 health care law and for backing legislation they say would weaken reporting requirements for mine safety violations.

“That only serves to strengthen the narrative of Mooney as not a West Virginian,” a national Democratic strategist said. 

Republicans admit that Mooney, who’s based in the eastern panhandle, has had to work hard to make inroads with Republicans in Charleston, on the other side of the district.

“Mooney has probably done not as good a job as he should shoring himself up,” a GOP strategist familiar with the state said. He pointed to negative headlines the congressman earned for being out of state on a congressional trip during flooding that ravaged West Virginia in 2016.

“But [he’s done] a good enough job to probably put that out of reach for Democrats,” the Republican said. 

Plus, the carpetbagging argument doesn’t resonate in the eastern panhandle, said West Virginia-based GOP pollster Mark Blankenship (no relation to the GOP Senate candidate). That’s because so many people from the eastern panhandle are also from away. 

Democrats might have identity problems of their own here.

Army veteran Aaron Scheinberg moved to the state from New York in 2017, where he was running a service organization for military veterans. He pointed out that his family has deep roots in the state and attacked Mooney for being an “absentee leader.”

Scheinberg’s familial ties to West Virginia don’t stop primary opponent Talley Sergent from calling both him and Mooney “opportunists.” 

Sergent is a former State Department official who worked for Coca-Cola. She grew up in Huntington and moved back to West Virginia in 2016, when she served as state director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She now lives in Charleston and bills herself as a sixth-generation West Virginian.

But Sergent has liabilities, too. Clinton’s about as toxic a figure in West Virginia as one could find. The state backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary. (Scheinberg supported Sanders.)

“I just own it,” Sergent said when asked how she responds to questions about her former boss. 

And what about the inevitable attacks that will try to link her to Clinton’s comments about coal miners? “My granddaddy was a coal miner,” Sergent said. 

Both candidates have earned national support from different outside networks. Scheinberg has the backing of VoteVets PAC and Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton. Sergent has received money from former Sen. Jay Rockefeller, for whom she worked on the Hill as a young college graduate. She’s also received money from other alumni of the Clinton campaign.

Republicans are confident the 2nd District will remain theirs in November.

“The last thing West Virginia needs is another vote to make Nancy Pelosi Speaker again,” a Mooney spokesperson said in an email. 

Both Scheinberg and Sergent said they wouldn’t vote for Pelosi for Democratic leader, saying it was time for new leadership in the party. 

Mooney’s spokesperson said the congressman regularly travels to all 17 counties he represents.

“He remains committed to working with President Donald Trump to cut taxes, repeal and replace Obamacare, revive the coal industry, create jobs, and protect social security and Medicare,” the spokesperson wrote.

Mooney ended the fourth quarter with $1 million. Scheinberg ended the third quarter with $142,000, compared to Sergent’s $106,000. Neither campaign has released fourth-quarter numbers.

“If we’re defending seats in West Virginia, I think there’s a bigger problem,” one national Republican strategist said. 

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