By John Raby
Democrat Cabell County Sen. Evan Jenkins on Wednesday became a Republican — his second party switch in two decades — and said he will run for Democrat Rep. Nick Rahall’s seat in Congress in 2014.
Jenkins declared his candidacy for the 3rd District seat after he switched his party registration at the Cabell County Courthouse in Huntington.
Jenkins, the executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, said he was fed up with Obama administration policies, including the president’s health-care agenda and energy policies that he said have harmed jobs in coal-rich southern West Virginia.
“It’s a new day,” Jenkins said at a news conference. “The Obama administration has a bulls-eye on our state. This is going to be an enormous challenge. Let’s get started.”
Jenkins called Rahall part of the problem in Washington.
“Nick Rahall claims to stand up for coal but voted for the budget that will destroy coal jobs in our state and significantly increase utility rates for all West Virginians,” Jenkins said. “We need a member of Congress to fight Obama’s dangerous agenda, not campaign for it.”
According to Cabell County voter registration records, Jenkins went from the GOP to the Democratic Party in February 1993. He was elected to the House of Delegates in 1994 and became a state senator in 2002.
“You’ve got to do what is in your heart and what is in your mind of what is the right thing to do,” Jenkins said. “Our constitution is clear. You can vote for whoever you want and you can align yourself with whatever party you want.”
To which Rahall replied in a statement, “Flip-flop. 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 as hollow as his word.”
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said that Jenkins showed courage by changing parties.
“Evan Jenkins is a man willing to break free from the chains of 80 years of failed Democrat rule, and take a chance to show our future can be better and brighter for generations to come,” Lucas said.
Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said West Virginia voters “now have a candidate for Congress who reflects their hopes and values, as well as their frustrations with how the Washington, D.C., Democratic establishment is committed to leaving West Virginia behind.”
West Virginia Democratic Party chairman Larry Puccio said that Jenkins is only loyal to what he called “Washington Republican money.”
“Evan Jenkins has enjoyed the good favor of Congressman Rahall, taking advantage of endorsements, photo ops, and every other chance to hitch his wagon to Nick Rahall’s star,” Puccio said.
“It is a shame that Evan is allowing money and politics to influence his misguided attempt to further his personal political ambition.”
Jenkins’ response to Puccio, “Nobody in Washington has promised me a penny.”
Prior to Jenkins’ announcement, West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, on Tuesday night removed him as chairman of the Senate’s Minority Affairs and Pensions Committee and vice chairman of the Health and Human Resources Committee.
Rahall has demonstrated strength in past elections. In 2010, a year when Republicans capitalized on voter frustration with the state of the economy, Rahall defeated Republican Elliott Maynard by 56-44 percent. The V-shaped district extends from Huntington in the west to the Monongahela National Forest on the east, taking in cities along Interstate 77 such as Beckley and Bluefield.
In 2012, Rahall fought off a challenge by Republican Delegate Rick Snuffer to win his 19th consecutive term.
Snuffer, who also lost to Rahall in 2004, congratulated Jenkins on Wednesday for his decision switch parties and run for the seat. He would not say whether he plans to seek the GOP nomination in 2014.
State Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, will serve as Jenkins’ campaign chairman.