LOGAN, W.Va. — The West Virginia Freedom Festival offered choices for Confederate flag accessories: jewelry, belts, pins and oven mitts. A couple blocks away, in the shadow of a “Hillbilly Mobile Zipline” platform, a Tennessee-based vendor called for a treason trial and eventual public execution of President Barack Obama.
It's hard to find a Mountaineer who would go that far — but most of them blame Obama and his Environmental Protection Agency for the economic hardship plaguing the state’s coal miners. The anger toward Obama is so widespread that it's easy to see how it could taint anyone with even the most tenuous ties to him and his administration.
On a hot and clear Saturday afternoon near the Kentucky border, this is Rep. Nick J. Rahall II’s challenge. The November election will be a test of whether the vaunted “Nick Joe” brand can sustain staggering outside spending and a seething hatred for the leader of his party. A Rahall defeat would prove national political forces can reign supreme, anytime or anywhere.
"I rely upon the intelligence and the fact that West Virginians know me, and they’re not going to be bought by out-of-state New York City billionaires coming in here trying to tell you who their congressman is,” Rahall said in an brief interview on a street corner in the heart of the festival.
In the past few cycles, Rahall's once-large margins of victory have narrowed. But this November marks the first time in recent history that Republicans are fully invested in his opponent, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, who was a Democrat until about a year go.
Rahall and Jenkins are battling over the 3rd District that stretches across the belly of West Virginia. On the southwestern edge of the state, Logan County is home to the Hatfields, famous for another feud — with the McCoys.
In 1968, then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York campaigned for president on the very same streets Rahall walked on July 5. Forty-six years ago, Kennedy decried local unemployment, substandard living conditions and pollution. The region's problems have not changed much since.
Things come cheap and hard in the 3rd District: labor, homes, crystal methamphetamine and airtime. The latter is why Rahall is in so much trouble this cycle.
Conservative outside groups, including Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance, have flooded the airwaves with $2 million worth of advertising that began last November. The district's inexpensive airtime rates only magnifies that attention, and voters CQ Roll Call spoke with could repeat themes from the attack ads unprompted.
By early spring, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had put Rahall in its endangered incumbent program. The Jenkins campaign released an internal poll that showed the 19-term incumbent down by double digits.
Some race watchers declared Rahall's re-election all but dead. In April, CNN reported Democratic leadership had to cajole the congressman out of retiring.
But after a rocky spring, Rahall's campaign rebounded and remains competitive for this fall. He maintained strong fundraising and debuted a clever, populist message: Blame the New York City billionaires fueling the ad campaign attacking him. A Democratic outside group, House Majority PAC, offered additional air support.
A slew of Democratic internal polls have since shown Rahall in better shape. The race is currently rated a Tossup by the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call.
On the ground, it's clear the anti-Rahall television ads had a lasting effect.
Jenkins spent part of his Fourth of July campaigning in Princeton, W.Va., on the east side of the district. He found a receptive audience as he worked the crowd in the Princeton Tigers high school stadium bleachers, while a rock 'n' roll cover band played on the field.
Michael Bevins, an out-of-work coal miner, received the Jenkins pitch. He later said he would vote for Jenkins and blamed Rahall for his unemployment. He continues to job hunt in the coal industry because, he said, "that's all I ever did."
Nearby, retired hospital employee Betty Cook said she had no interest in politics and was unlikely to vote in the fall. But after Jenkins introduced himself, she had a change of heart.
"He's just different," she gushed. "He's real to me. I believe in what I'm seeing."
Her boyfriend, disabled former car mechanic Doug Shinault, agreed.
"I hear a lot about Rahall that I don't like. They need to replace Nick Rahall," said Shinault, a Democrat. "He loves Obama. I'll put it that way ... and I hate Obama."
"Somehow, [Rahall] thinks voters will think he's the pathway out," Jenkins said later, in an interview outside the stadium. "What I'm finding is they're saying enough is enough."
"It's not that I've changed," he said, adding that it was national Democrats who did the evolving.
Back in Logan, Rahall sneers at the mention of Jenkins, calling his rival “an opportunist.”
But for voters, Rahall is a polarizing figure. They are split over whether he is Obama’s closest ally or their best advocate against the president.
“Because I’m a Democrat, that association is unfairly pinned on me by the out-of-state billionaires who don’t like Obama and who don’t like anybody that happens to be the same party,” Rahall said.
He accuses the interest groups airing ads against him as “out to bust every union in this country.”
“They do not have West Virginians at heart,” he added.
Rahall campaigned with gusto on July 5, with one of his granddaughters in tow. He stuck out in the crowd by wearing an old-fashioned, short-sleeve dress shirt and American flag tie. But once festival attendees recognized him, they flocked to shake his hand.
Back in Washington, D.C., Rahall is known by his full name. In Logan, he’s “Nick Joe” or “Nicky Joe.” Nearly everyone approached him with adoration, save for one confrontation with a veteran over his proximity to Obama.
“I don’t think he’s like Obama at all,” countered Larry Roark, a disabled miner. “I’ve known Nick Rahall ever since I was old enough to. He’s always been good. Even to my dad, when he worked in the coal mines.”
And that is what Rahall is betting on to earn a 20th term.
“It’s called personal touch,” Rahall said of the “Nicky Joe” brand. “Constantly on the streets like I am now … always returning peoples' phone calls. Always in constant touch with my constituents.
“And I believe they know who Nick Rahall is," he added.
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