Why West Virginia's Governor Might Run for Congress

Earl Ray Tomblin is considering taking an unusual step when he's termed out of the governor's office in 2017.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, second from right, would be one in a crowd if he decides to go for a seat in the House. (National Journal)

After serving two terms as West Virginia's governor and nearly 17 years as the state Senate president, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin could take an unusual—and, some might say, backwards—step: running to become a freshman member of the House of Representatives.

The term-limited Tomblin, whose tenure ends in 2017, is mulling a bid in southern West Virginia against freshman Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins. With Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin passing on a run for governor next year—and GOP Sen. Shelley Moore Capito's term not expiring until 2020—a House run looks like the most straightforward path for Tomblin to remain in public office.

"If he wants to continue in the political process, that's the most logical place for him to go," West Virginia Democratic strategist Mike Plante said. "All the stars would align with the timing."

But beating a GOP incumbent in the conservative, coal-friendly district he's eyeing wouldn't be easy, even for Tomblin, a culturally conservative Democrat. That political risk, combined with the transition from being a chief executive to just one of 435 House members, has some political observers skeptical that Tomblin will take the plunge.

Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman told National Journal that the governor is still weighing a run, but offered no timeline on a final decision. Tomblin stirred speculation about his political future late last month, when he told the Associated Press that he had been approached about a congressional bid but hadn't made "any final decisions on anything yet."

In the meantime, Democratic leaders and strategists are enthusiastic about the prospect of his candidacy, confident that Tomblin would be best suited to topple Jenkins. According to a survey last month from Global Strategy Group, a Democratic consulting firm, 54 percent of West Virginians view Tomblin favorably, while 32 percent view him unfavorably. And in his 2012 gubernatorial run, Tomblin carried 13 of the 18 counties in the district where he'd be running.

"The governor is a proven vote-getter, and his views are mainstream in that district," said Steve White, a former West Virginia Democratic Party chair.

Still, taking down Jenkins would be far from a sure bet.

In 2012, Mitt Romney won the coal-friendly district, where voters deeply reject President Obama and his administration's energy policies, by 32 points. Two years later, the GOP took the seat after linking 19-term Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall to Obama and national Democrats, even as Rahall touted his coal credentials and independence from party leaders.

Tomblin would likely confront a similar challenge. "There's been such a strong reaction that Democrats in Washington are anti-coal and out of touch with this district," said Republican state Del. John D. O'Neal IV, who represents part of the area as majority whip in the state House of Delegates. "It's just tough to make the case."

With the exception of Manchin, the state's congressional delegation is entirely Republican. (Just over four years ago, Capito was the only Republican in the delegation.) In 2014, the party flipped a Senate seat and won two competitive House contests, including Jenkins's seat.

But Democrats say Tomblin, who's never lost an election, would be a particularly strong candidate in 2016. Jenkins's office did not respond to a request for comment.

Tomblin was elected to the state House of Delegates in 1974, before winning a spot in the state Senate in 1980. He broke the record for the longest-serving Senate president in West Virginia's history before he was appointed acting governor when Manchin left for Washington. After winning a special election for governor in 2011, Tomblin was reelected in 2012.

"If he were to get in this race, and I think it's unlikely, he would by necessity have to spend the remainder of his term as governor essentially campaigning," said Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The group, which backed Jenkins last cycle, endorsed Tomblin while he was in the state Senate and in his two gubernatorial bids.

If Tomblin does launch a congressional run, he wouldn't be the first to jump from the governor's mansion to the House: Former Reps. Michael Castle of Delaware and Bill Janklow of South Dakota once took that route as well. But those states have just one congressional district apiece, and Castle and Janklow were still running statewide while Tomblin would be downsizing. There are more House members who have run for county-level executive positions in recent years than governors who have decided to become freshman legislators in the House.

West Virginia-based GOP pollster Mark Blankenship, whose firm worked on Jenkins' bid, said of Tomblin, "He would be going out at a pretty high point, so the reasonable question becomes: Why then would he attempt to become a freshman member of Congress in a hyperpartisan Congress?"