September 4th, 2010
09:00 AM ET
12 years ago

CNN 100: Once-untouchable Rahall faces first credible challenge in years

[cnn-photo-caption image= caption =" The CNN 100 takes a look at the top 100 House races, from now until Election Day."]Editor's Note: In the final 100 days before Election Day, CNN has been profiling one race at random each day from among the nation's top 100 House races, which we've dubbed "The CNN 100." Read the full list here. Today's featured district is:

West Virginia 3rd: Nick Rahall (D) vs. Elliott "Spike" Maynard (R)
Primary: May 11, 2010
Location: Southern West Virginia
Days until Election Day: 59

For more than 30 years, Nick Rahall has represented West Virginians in the heart of "coal country" and has very rarely had to break a sweat on Election Night. That may change in 2010. The 17-term Democrat now faces what will likely be one of his toughest re-election battles to date, though for Rahall, any race where he doesn't rack up a 30-point victory margin might be considered a squeaker.

Rahall was first elected in 1976 in a tough three-way race in which he won with only 46 percent of the vote. Of his 16 subsequent re-election bids, his winning percentage has dipped below the 60 percent mark only once, and that was 20 years ago. Since then, his average at the polls has been 75 percent of the vote.

As a member of Congress, he has voted reliably with his party on major Democratic policy initiatives, including health care reform, the economic stimulus package, and Wall Street reform. According to a CQ analysis, he has supported President Obama's position on 94 percent of key votes last year. He did break with his party on at least one key matter that, not coincidentally, is strongly opposed in his coal-producing district: the so-called "cap and trade" proposal to reduce greenhouse emissions. The measure barely passed the House in 2009 with only eight Republican votes and has since stalled in the Senate.

The president has been a major proponent of "cap and trade," which has not endeared him or his party to 3rd District voters. Nor have the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency under Obama's watch. There was an outcry in April when the agency tightened its requirements for mountaintop mining permits. The EPA said the new guidelines are necessary to prevent polluted waterways; the coal industry said the guidelines are impossible to meet.

Rahall voted against the "cap and trade" bill, but his early support of Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign may come back to haunt him in November. Obama not only lost the state and this district in the general election, he garnered only 27 percent of the statewide vote in the Democratic presidential primary against Hillary Clinton.

Rahall's opponent, Elliott "Spike" Maynard, is a former state Supreme Court judge who switched from Democrat to Republican before the race. Maynard told The (Huntington) Herald-Dispatch that he changed parties because "Washington liberals declared war on the coal industry and threatened thousands of West Virginia jobs."

Maynard's tenure on the bench has not been without controversy. After ruling in favor of Massey Energy Co. in a prominent 2007 case, photographs surfaced that showed Maynard vacationing with Massey's CEO in Monaco. The case had to be reheard. Maynard defended his friendship with the CEO and said it had no bearing on his decision, but the scandal didn't help his re-election hopes in 2008. He was defeated in the primary. Massey went on to make national headlines in April when an explosion at its Upper Big Branch mine, located in the 3rd District, killed 29 miners.

Still, Maynard's close ties with the coal industry might endear him to Appalachian Democrats who are fed up with the status quo. And the overall political climate has become increasingly unfavorable for Rahall's party. The 3rd District has more registered Democrats than Republicans, but in 2008 it voted 56 percent to 42 percent in favor of Republican John McCain.

Rahall is more vulnerable than he's been in any recent election, but he's still far better off than many of his fellow Red State Democrats. Financially, he has a massive advantage over his opponent, with more than $1.5 million in cash as of July 27, compared with $114,509 for Maynard. And he helped preserve his credibility with the coal interests in his state by opposing "cap and trade." But Democrats nationwide are expected to face a tough time at the ballot box this November, and it's possible that frustrated 3rd District voters looking to send a message to Washington may take their anger out on Rahall.

- CNN Political Research Director Robert Yoon contributed to this report.

Filed under: 2010 • CNN 100 • Nick Rahall • West Virginia
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. barry

    Who cares. They will both be a rubber stamp for the job killing socialist agenda that created the Obama recession.

    September 4, 2010 10:08 am at 10:08 am |
  2. Keith in Austin

    NO DEMOCRAT running for re-election is safe in the era of Erkel Hussein Obama!

    September 4, 2010 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  3. Steve- Illinois

    30 years says it all! Time to get rid of these career politicians, and wake up those running for election to the realization the electorate actually wants to be represented! The "me first, party second, people somewhere farther down the list" days need to be over! Now is the time!

    If this is the results of his 30 year, tax payer funded, stint in government, it's time for him to be retired!

    Common Sense!

    September 4, 2010 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  4. Snow

    THIRTY YEARS in the same office, come on, WV isn't it time for this seat to be transferred to someone else?

    September 4, 2010 10:30 am at 10:30 am |