The leaders of the National Republican Congressional Committee couldn’t believe their luck.
The NRCC had already made up its mind to target long-time West Virginia Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall in the 2014 election. But then Rahall delivered up a softball, a vote that, while largely symbolic, played right into the hands of his opponents.
On March 30th, Rahall voted in favor of the Congressional Progressive Caucus budget plan. Dubbed the “Back to Work Budget,” the proposal amounts to a traditional liberal wish list of higher taxes and more government spending.
But it was the coal-related provisions of the budget that caught the eye of the NRCC.
According to a release from the Congressional Progressive Caucus, its budget includes a carbon tax. “The Back to Work Budget would impose on polluters a $25 per ton price on carbon dioxide (increasing at 5.6% a year), rebating 25% of all revenues as refundable tax credits to protect low income families.”
The document also called for a rollback of what it says are $112 billion in fossil fuel subsidies over ten years, while spending more money on renewable energy.
The coal industry, which is so vital in Rahall’s district, is already suffering. A combination of greater competition from low-priced natural gas and increased regulatory pressure from the EPA has led to layoffs in the short-term and uncertainty for the future.
The liberal budget plan failed decisively 84-327, with more Democrats (102) voting against it than in favor of it.
Rahall’s vote in support of the Back to Work Budget is difficult to comprehend. It was not a leadership vote where Rahall had to toe the line. In fact, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t even vote for it.
“With his vote for the ultra-liberal ‘Progressive Budget,’ Nick Rahall has declared war on West Virginia’s coal industry and the hard-working West Virginians that depend on that industry to put food on their families’ tables,’” said NRCC spokesman Ian Prior. “Rahall needs to explain exactly why he decided to turn his back on West Virginia with this devastating and irresponsible vote.”
Rahall’s office stresses that he knew the non-binding budget would not pass, and that he wanted to make a statement against the budget of Republican Paul Ryan, which passed the House and which Rahall opposed. The Ryan plan dramatically changes Medicare by turning it into a premium support system for anyone 55 and under.
“I voted to protect Medicare and the benefits seniors have earned and to move the budget toward balance in a reasonable way,” Rahall said in an email response to my questions.
The Congressman says he’s also aware that since he’s been targeted for 2014, the GOP is going to come after him no matter what he says or does.
“I know from years of experience that nearly any vote I cast can be fodder for attack—especially on big, wide-ranging package bills like the annual federal budget, the contents of which can be twisted and distorted in multiple says,” Rahall said.
Of course, for Rahall to truly be threatened, he needs a viable opponent. So far no Republican is in the race, however the NRCC is pushing for first-term state Senator Bill Cole from Mercer County. He told me on Metronews Talkline last week he’s seriously considering a run, but he has reservations.
“On the personal side, I still have two teenage daughters at home and I have to do what’s right for my family,” said the successful Bluefield car dealer. “On the political side, I want to serve where I think I can have the most impact for West Virginia.”
If Cole decides not to run, Rick Snuffer may get in. He came within eight points of Rahall in 2012 (54-46) with little national help.
Republicans have been trying to write Nick Rahall’s political obituary for years and have come up short in 18 elections. The odds still favor Rahall in his 19th, but his vote in favor of the Back to Work Budget gave an advantage to those who want to put him out of work.