West Virginia House Race a Bellwether

Member Group : Salena Zito

Nothing better crystallizes the deep disconnect between Washington and Main Street America than the peculiar narrative surrounding Nick Rahall’s re-election bid for a U.S. House seat.

West Virginia’s 3rd District congressman faces the most important challenger of his 37-year career — himself.

On paper, Rahall has everything going for him: He lives in a state where Democrats hold a huge voter-registration advantage over Republicans; as an 18-time winner, he has the built-in protection of incumbency (statistics show incumbents are more than 80 percent more likely to retain their seats); he is running against a Democrat-turned-Republican state senator, and voters sometimes view a party switch as suspect.

But that is all on paper.

The reality is that Rahall has become a creature of Washington. And Washington, despite its geographical proximity to West Virginia, has a Versailles-like lifestyle and progressive mindset that is far removed from the values of most West Virginians. So, Rahall might as well govern from a palace.

In the past, he stitched together a seamless outside-the-Beltway story with his constituency. That has frayed with each progressive platform he adopted, however.

His voting record against his state’s economic interests is astounding, beginning with his 2007 support for cap-and-trade and his repeated support of progressive climate policies during the first two years of President Obama’s term, when Democrats still controlled the House.

And his 2010 vote for ObamaCare, followed by his vote against its repeal last year, only adds to his complex re-election bid.

His inexplicable vote in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget plan last year will inevitably have him facing the man in the mirror. That annual budget vote typically is held just for show and contains a liberal wish list for bigger government and higher taxes that virtually no one votes for, including most Democrats.

What made his support for this budget so jarring is that it contained a carbon tax that would impose a $25-per-ton price on carbon dioxide (increasing 5.6 percent a year) and a rollback of more than $100 billion in fossil-fuel subsidies over 10 years — all while spending more money on renewable energy.

Not a particularly wise vote for a man who lives in a district where nearly 20,000 folks are employed by the very coal industry that would be devastated by this tax.

To know West Virginia is to go to West Virginia. It is one of the most stunning yet misunderstood and maligned states in our union, a state that everybody should visit before repeating those predictable, unimaginative jokes which mostly originated in its unique Scots-Irish Appalachian culture, the Hatfield-McCoy feud and a woebegone character named Jesco White, aka "The Dancing Outlaw."

Like most folks in this country outside Washington, D.C., West Virginians work hard, play hard and play by the rules. Their main streets are the kind of places that high-end developers re-create in wealthy suburban districts abutting the D.C. Beltway, to mimic small-town lifestyles.

West Virginians are tired of Washington doing nothing, telling them one thing and voting another way, and living in a modern-day Versailles while representing the frontier. West Virginians have lost their allegiance to party brands and have given up on congressional longevity as a reason to support someone.

Washington media and paid pundits will make a big fuss in March over a special election for a House seat in Florida, telling everyone that it will be a bellwether for what will happen in the November midterm elections.

But it is not; special elections never are indicators. Just ask Republicans how their 2006 special-election victory in California glided them to victory in that year’s midterms, or ask Democrats about the one in Pennsylvania’s 12th Congressional District in 2010.

If you want to know about an election that tells you the real story about America, an America on the brink of not caring which party label follows your name and instead cares about who will do the best job for your family, your community and your state, then watch this West Virginia race.

And watch to see if Nick Rahall beats Nick Rahall.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]