Jenkins switches sides, announces congressional run - Business, Government Legal News from throughout WV

Jenkins switches sides, announces congressional run

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JIM ROSS / The State Journal JIM ROSS / The State Journal
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Evan Jenkins is taking a spin with the old saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

The 52-year-old Cabell County senator who has been a Democratic member of the West Virginia Legislature since 1994 switched his party affiliation to Republican and announced his campaign for the House of Representatives July 31.

It was not his first time changing political parties.

"When I first registered at the age of 18, I registered as a Democrat, and that's the history of a lot of Democrats in West Virginia — what's your father's registration, or your mother's," he said. "Over time, you start thinking about policy and important issues, and I registered a Republican at one point.

"I had some folks I really believed in and wanted to be very supportive of, and I was a registered Republican. Then I switched back to a Democrat."

Jenkins, CEO of the West Virginia Medical Foundation and father of two, said his party affiliation isn't a complicated thing. He said the Republican Party represents the values he believes in, and the Democratic Party of the early 1990s isn't the party that exists today.

Does money talk?

Jenkins' decision had been churning through West Virginia's political rumor mill for weeks, along with the names of other candidates who may eschew their party affiliations before the next election cycle. 

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio was quick to issue a statement saying Jenkins was only loyal to the dollar.

"When Washington Republican money came a-knockin', Jenkins went a-walkin'," Puccio said in a statement.

Jenkins said he had not spoken with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., who would be Jenkins' opponent if he won the Republican primary election, about his decision. Rahall, who was first elected in 1976 and is currently serving his 18th term in the House of Representatives, issued a statement.

"Flip-flop," Rahall said. "How many times is Evan Jenkins going to switch parties? Not for public service, but for self service.

"Clearly, this time his new-found Republican bosses in Washington have promised him the world; yet his promises to West Virginians now ring hollow as his word."

Jenkins said he has not been made any promises of financial support from the Republican Party on any level.

"Have I talked with party officials? Absolutely," Jenkins said. "I wanted to make sure that their view, their priorities, their agenda, was something that was right for southern West Virginia, and make sure I matched up with that."

Jenkins said he peeked at Rahall's most recent campaign finance report and noted that more than three-quarters of Rahall's funding comes from political action committees in Washington.

"This fall I'll spend an enormous amount of time in southern West Virginia throughout the district, meeting with Republicans, meeting with the Republican leadership," Jenkins said. "When the official filing period comes in January, there won't be any question, even if there were any today, that I'm there for the right reasons."

Riding a republican wave

Mark Blankenship, chief executive officer of the polling firm Mark Blankenship Enterprises, said party switches are common in other states, and it comes on the heels of a Republican groundswell.

"In West Virginia the Republican momentum has been building for several election cycles, and there are reasons for that," Blankenship said. "What I would say is that once the Republican momentum is realized, the party switching for these conservative Democrats follows.

"Look, it's not your grandfather's Democratic Party anymore."

Blankenship said Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., who has been in the Second Congressional District for the past 13 years, seems likely to win the run at U.S. Senate she has launched. That would mark the first time West Virginia would have a Republican in the U.S. Senate since the 1950s. Two of the five West Virginia Supreme Court justices are Republicans, the First Congressional District is occupied by a Republican, and the House of Delegates is experiencing its highest percentage of Republicans in decades at 46 percent.

Blankenship said President Barack Obama has an approval rating in the low 30 percent in West Virginia, and the number of Democrats who vote with a straight ticket has rapidly decreased during the last several election cycles.

"We're more and more seeing voters vote for the actual person as opposed to the party — sizing the person up based on how he or she stacks up on these issues," Blankenship said. "Certainly they're more apt to vote for someone who is pro-Second Amendment than pro-gun control; certainly they're more apt to vote for someone who votes to control government spending than someone who supports increased government spending; and certainly for candidates who vote in a manner to protect the energy industry and to create jobs in the energy industry than to vote for global warming policies and environmental policies that hurt the economy."

Tom Susman, a former legislator and political consultant with TSG Consulting, agreed party swapping happens in other states when the balance of power is about to change, so the question in West Virginia will be whether the Republican gains are a fluke or a true shift in power.

"Honestly, I don't think party means what it used to mean," Susman said. "It used to have a real meaning, and the political parties did something and meant something, but it's real clear now that it's on the individual and what the individual can bring to the campaign."

Been there, done that

Neil Berch, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, said West Virginia voters have seen this move before.

Former Democratic Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard switched his party affiliation to Republican and ran against Rahall in 2010. Maynard received 43 percent of the vote.

Jenkins shares his Senate office with Sen. Dan Hall, D-Wyoming, who knows a few things about switching sides.

Hall unsuccessfully ran for the House of Delegates as a Republican in 2006, but was elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 2008.

"It sounds juicy, but it's really not," Hall said this week of his own party switch. "I have nothing to hide, and I've addressed this same issue several times, as you can imagine."

Like Jenkins, Hall said he registered as a Democrat as a young man. Hall said national party politics turned him away from the fold when he became a young professional in his mid-20s, so he changed his affiliation to the Republican Party.

Hall then married a woman with a Wyoming County business, so he moved there and realized most of that county's political decisions happened in the primary election, so he decided he needed to be a Democrat if he was ever going to have a voice.

"I didn't know I'd ever run for office again when I moved and changed parties," Hall said. "I faced a lot of criticism."

Hall said both he and Jenkins care more about personal convictions than party affiliations.

"Here's the problem: Both parties, on a national level, do not represent what West Virginians believe in," Hall said. "I'm not a party guy; I'm there to try to do what's right for my district, and I think the general public, the citizens, they almost always vote for the candidate."

Hall said bipartisanship happens every day at the Legislature without much notice.

Supreme Court Justice Allen Loughry, a Republican, switched parties before running for the seat. He said he has always wanted to be nonpartisan, but he found people wanted to pick a side.

"I still believe judges should be nonpartisan, and that's how I'm going to act for my 12 years on the bench," Loughry said. "It's a personal decision for each candidate based on their thoughts and beliefs."

Jenkins said he simply came to the conclusion that running for Congress would be his best opportunity to make the greatest impact for a better West Virginia and its people.

Uphill battle

George Manahan, owner of the Manahan Group, said this week Jenkins will have a tough road ahead.

"Just because he's been a Democrat for years doesn't mean he'll get the crossover vote," Manahan said. "He may be known in his district, but I would guess he's not known outside it."

Manahan also pointed out the obvious hurdle — Jenkins will have to overcome Rahall.

"Rahall has obviously been a long-standing Democratic congressman for a number of years, and he wins because southern West Virginians like him," Manahan said.

Susman said a Democrat making this kind of move 10 years ago might have been engaging in "the kiss of death," and while it may not be as extreme a move these days, he said Jenkins still faces an uphill battle.

But Susman added that geography means a lot to West Virginia voters, and a candidate from Cabell County  may not appeal to Raleigh County voters who have come to know their Congressman from Beckley quite well over the years.

Berch, the professor, said Jenkins' move is a big risk, but if he wins, it could come with a big reward.

Berch pointed out the congressional district is made up of 600,000 people, and Jenkins currently represents about 10 percent of that, so he has a lot of ground to cover in terms of building name recognition.

Rahall won with 53 percent of the vote in November 2012 in the general election against Republican Rick Snuffer.

Snuffer, a former state legislator, issued a statement July 31 saying he congratulated Jenkins on his party switch, but he was not yet prepared to offer his own plans for the 2014 election.

"Our campaign team fully understands the National Republican Congressional Committee's enthusiasm for Evan's party switch and their expressed desire for a candidate who could self-fund his race," Snuffer said in his statement. "This is Evan's day, as it should be.

"Given the difference between Evan's legislative voting record and mine, plus the large lead I have in the internal polls which Washington conducted between the two of us in a primary contest, our team is confident should we enter the race next year, we will be more than competitive."

Jenkins said he would finish his Senate term, but Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, removed Jenkins from his chairman and vice chairman positions July 30.

Jenkins said there are no Republicans in leadership positions, so he expected the move.

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