CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall says he wants more than anything to bring new jobs into a 3rd District that has been hit by mining-related layoffs this year. Now, though, the West Virginia Democrat is fighting to keep his own job.
Rahall is seeking a 19th consecutive term in the U.S. House. To get it, he must defeat Republican Del. Rick Snuffer in Tuesday's general election.
"There's a lot of frustration, angst and concern about the current down cycle we're in, in the coal industry," said Rahall, 63. "That's the No. 1 concern."
Job losses in the mining industry are one reason Snuffer says Rahall shouldn't be re-elected. Snuffer blames the losses on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's reach in southern West Virginia. Critics allege the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal" through its energy policies, pursuit of environmental standards and handling of mining-related permits.
Snuffer, a first-term state delegate who lost to Rahall in 2004, said he believes the incumbent didn't do enough after the EPA clamped down on the permitting process for mountaintop mines.
The challenger also cited the congressman's vote against a 2011 Republican-backed House bill to give Congress greater authority over major federal rules such as those written by the EPA.
With Rahall's stances, "it's just hard to tell these coal miners out here that you really are fighting the EPA," said Snuffer, 51.
In September, Rahall voted for a GOP-led bill that would bar the EPA from restricting greenhouse gases, give states control over disposal of harmful coal byproducts and eliminate stricter fuel-efficiency standards for cars.
"I have for 36 years defended and worked for the coal industry and our coal miners in southern West Virginia, their health and safety being number one," he said. "For anybody to say that I have been anti-coal or pro-EPA, they're living in la-la land.
"My record clearly has shown me being pro-coal and anti-EPA," he added.
He said he supports diversifying the southern West Virginia economy and retraining laid-off miners for jobs in industries such as oil and gas, timbering, agriculture, tourism, technology and health services.
According to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey, six of the state's top 10 coal-producing counties are in the 3rd District, as are four of the top 10 natural-gas producing counties.
"Yeah, coal's No. 1. Has been, is and probably always will be," Rahall said. But "we need to strengthen all of those areas."
In September, the most recent month for which figures are available, eight of the 17 counties in the 3rd District had jobless rate increases, compared with two in the rest of the state. But eight 3rd District counties also saw unemployment rates drop. Two of the four counties in the state with double-digit unemployment rates — Boone and Webster — are within the district.
Since entering the race, Snuffer has called the congressman out of touch with district voters due to his support of President Barack Obama, whose approval ratings are low in West Virginia. The National Republican Congressional Committee chimed in with a TV ad that says "with Obama as president, we just can't count on Nick Rahall."
Rahall has said he'll support Democrats in the November election, including Obama. He said criticism of his backing of the president is "a repeat performance of that worn-out line. Except this time it's being tied to everybody on the Democratic side. It's unreal.
"But the West Virginia people are fair and intelligent enough to see through this type of rhetoric fueled by unlimited and undisclosed outside money interests. That's who's pushing all of it," he said.
Snuffer said he wants to represent the voters and not a political party or special interest groups. He added that he wants to ensure that Medicare funding is preserved for the district's senior citizens. He also wants to bring more funding to the state to complete transportation projects.
"The congressman has built a mile or so of road every few years and hasn't finished anything," Snuffer said.
Rahall is the top Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. In June, a two-year compromise bill was approved to maintain federal highway and transit programs at current funding levels.
Despite the candidates' expressed willingness to discuss the issues face-to-face, no debate was held.
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.
According to the Federal Election Commission, Rahall has raised $1.26 million in the current election cycle and spent $1.47 million. He had $134,600 on hand as of Oct. 17. Snuffer reported raising $519,000 and spending $449,000. He had $81,000 on hand for the campaign's final stretch.