Can Manchin save coal country Dems?
© Scott Wong

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Endangered Rep. Nick RahallNick Joe RahallWe shouldn't allow politics to impede disaster relief Break the cycle of partisanship with infant, child health care programs Clinton mulls role in 2018 midterms MORE is running as fast as he can from President Obama, but there’s one fellow Democrat he’s happy to embrace: Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinPolitical purity tests are for losers Former coal exec Don Blankenship launches third-party presidential bid Centrist Democrats seize on state election wins to rail against Warren's agenda MORE.

The West Virginia senator and former governor has been barnstorming the country this fall, making campaign stops with vulnerable red-state Democrats from Alaska, Louisiana and North Carolina where the unpopular president isn’t welcome.

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But on a drizzly day this week, Manchin was back home in coal country, hugging, back-slapping and posing for photos with 50 supporters at a rally to reelect the man affectionately known around these parts as “Nick Joe.”

“Nick is the real deal,” Manchin said in an interview with The Hill at the Cabell County Democratic headquarters. He’s a “moderate, conservative voice in the House that understands energy, that understands coal, who can explain what we do.”

After the rally, Manchin drove over to a nearby hotel in downtown Huntington to raise cash for Rahall, seeking his 20th term and facing perhaps his toughest opponent ever, GOP state Sen. Evan Jenkins, a former Democrat. 

 

Straight-shooter 

Earlier this month, Manchin — perhaps best known for his campaign ad where he shoots a bullet through Obama’s emissions cap-and trade bill — tried to pass that magic on to Rahall, calling him a “straight shooter” who’s stood up to the president’s anti-coal policies in an ad earlier this year.

A former West Virginia University football player, Manchin’s also lending Rahall the campaign playbook that carried him to victory in a 2010 special election and 2012 reelection after the passing of iconic Sen. Robert Byrd (D): Rail against Obama’s EPA restrictions on the coal industry at every opportunity, tout your independence from the Democratic Party and don’t lose touch with constituents back home.

Rahall, 65, needs all the help he can get. House Republicans see his seat in West Virginia's 3rd District as one of the top pickup opportunities of the cycle, and millions of dollars from outside groups are pouring into the race. On Wednesday, the start of early voting here, NRCC Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) made his second trip to the district, huddling with Jenkins and donors at Pasquale’s Italian restaurant in Beckley. Jenkins, 54, has been trying to nationalize the race by saying it comes down to one thing: Democrats’ alleged "war on coal."

It’s hardly surprising Obama’s efforts to cut carbon pollution are extremely unpopular in this rural Appalachian district whose mountains and valleys are dotted with coalfields, coal-fired plants and the towns that are fueled by them. Not one of West Virginia’s 55 counties went for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 election.

The race will be a key barometer for a Democratic Party struggling to hold on to blue collar districts where it had once dominated for decades.

 

 Is party switching enough?

Jenkins has been drawing fire on the campaign trail for switching parties last year from Democrat to Republican. Several Democrats who have served or worked with Jenkins noted that he had praised and donated money to Rahall in the past. But at a local GOP headquarters along Robert C. Byrd Drive in Beckley, Jenkins maintained he’s “always been a conservative,” voting for John McCainJohn Sidney McCainBudowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 Conservative group cuts ties with Michelle Malkin Democratic debate at Tyler Perry's could miss the mark with black voters MORE in 2008 and Romney in 2012.

He blasted Rahall as an Obama “foot soldier” who voted for a 2013 Congressional Progressive Caucus budget that called for a carbon tax. That spending plan ultimately failed. Jenkins also came down on the congressman for opposing the Regulations from the Executive in Need of Scrutiny (REINS) Act, which would empower Congress to approve any major regulations proposed by the EPA and other federal agencies.

“If there’s anybody who’s changed their tune, it’s Nick Rahall,” Jenkins told The Hill. “He got us into this mess; he supported Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAs Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Debate gives Democrats a chance to focus on unaddressed issues of concern to black voters Is Joe Biden finished? MORE over the wishes of the voters of West Virginia.”

Back in Huntington, an old river port and rail hub on the state’s Kentucky and Ohio borders, Rahall rattled off all the issues where he’s disagreed with Obama: “I’ve opposed him whether it’s coal, gay rights, gun control, abortion, trade issues, immigration.”

"Are there any areas where you agree with the president?" a reporter asked. “Well, that’s a good question,” he said chuckling. “You have to ask my opponent.”

Manchin’s surrogate work for vulnerable Democrats this cycle isn’t going unnoticed back home. On Monday, he stumped with Sen. Kay HaganKay Ruthven HaganDemocrats will win back the Senate majority in 2020, all thanks to President Trump The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Better Medicare Alliance - Dems shift strategy on impeachment vote Former North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan dies at 66 MORE in North Carolina. He flew to Alaska to campaign with Sen. Mark BegichMark Peter BegichAlaska political mess has legislators divided over meeting place Former GOP chairman Royce joins lobbying shop Lobbying world MORE before that, and fired guns in Louisiana with Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairwoman Mary LandrieuMary Loretta LandrieuCongress needs to work to combat the poverty, abuse and neglect issues that children face Dems wrestle over how to vote on ‘Green New Deal’ Lobbying world MORE. He’s looking to join Arkansas Sen. Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorTom Cotton's only Democratic rival quits race in Arkansas Medicaid rollback looms for GOP senators in 2020 Cotton pitches anti-Democrat message to SC delegation MORE and Georgia Senate candidate Michelle Nunn before Election Day.

It’s unclear what exactly Manchin wants. He frequently voices frustration with Washington gridlock, and has said Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid: Early voting states Iowa, New Hampshire 'not representative of the country anymore' The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Bottom Line MORE (D-Nev.) contributes to it. But he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll run for a second full six-year term in the Senate, or jump in the 2016 race for governor where he’d be the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic nomination.

“I want to wait and see what happens. I want to be productive. I want to help my state and my country,” Manchin said. “I’ve told Harry, let 'em vote. Keep us there 24-7, seven days a week, make them vote around the clock, and if not, let’s get on with the process of debating.”

“I’ve just said, ‘Harry, we can’t continue [like this]. I’m not going to stay and continue this madness.’”

Even after teaming with Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) on expanded background checks legislation for firearm sales, Manchin may still be the most popular living Democrat in gun-loving West Virginia. He even has fans among some dyed-in-the-wool Republicans.

“I like him. He actually, in my opinion, put West Virginia in good standing throughout the country,” said GOP state Del. Roy Cooper, a Vietnam War veteran who represents parts of Summers County. “He was a good governor. He represented this state; he built this state up.”

Manchin’s help certainly doesn’t hurt Rahall, Cooper said. “It actually hurts Joe Manchin.”

 

Where everybody knows your name — and political history

If West Virginia is a small state, its political community is even smaller. Not only did Jenkins donate $500 to Rahall back in 2010; Rahall donated to Jenkins when he was a fellow Democrat in the statehouse. And Jenkins even hosted a fundraiser for Manchin back when he was a candidate for governor.

It gets better. Rep. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoHillicon Valley: Facebook to remove mentions of potential whistleblower's name | House Dems demand FCC action over leak of location data | Dem presses regulators to secure health care data Senators introduce bill to create 'parity' among broadband programs Republicans warn election results are 'wake-up call' for Trump MORE (R-W.Va.), the daughter of a West Virginia governor who likely will be serving in the Senate alongside Manchin next year, once bought carpet from Manchin’s family business during the late 1970s.

“He made it, he sewed it, then he installed it, no ...” she joked in an interview after a rally in Beckley. “He actually measured it and somebody else put it in. He was the carpet salesman.”

Now, Manchin and other Democratic allies are selling "Nick Joe" Rahall. Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said he’s delivered big for his city: Rahall’s helped secure federal funds to help redevelop a vacant lot into the Pullman Square retail and entertainment complex, and for a diabetes program at Marshall University. As the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Rahall has steered millions more to local airport and roadway projects.

And Williams warned of trouble for the unfinished Huntington-to-Bluefield road. “If he’s not sitting in Congress come January, that King Coal Highway is a forgotten path,” the mayor said.

Others not in the political arena said they’re also sticking with Rahall, even as they disparaged Obama.

Sitting outside the gold-domed county courthouse in Huntington, Terri Fullerton-Clark, 45, said she still carries a voice message from Rahall on her cellphone from a year ago. During the government shutdown, Veterans Affairs benefits for her two children were halted. Their disabilities had been linked to their late father, a Gulf War veteran who received experimental injections to combat exposure to chemical warfare, she said.

Rahall personally met with Fullerton-Clarke, a registered independent, in his Huntington office to explain her problem. Then, the congressman called from Washington and left a message informing her the benefits would quickly be restored.

“I wasn’t just a Social Security number out here where my kids didn’t matter. Nick Rahall does make sure that the little people and his state are covered,” the retired nurse said. “He stood up for me and I’m a nobody.”