Redistricting changes likely after 2010 Democrats look at ways to pick off Capito's seat

Paul J, Nyden
January 6, 2009

State legislators are likely to make some modifications to West Virginia's three congressional districts in 2011 after the U.S. Census Bureau releases its latest population statistics, collected in 2010.

could have some impact, beginning with the 2012 elections, on who wins the Mountain State's three congressional districts.

West Virginia's population of a little more than 1.8 million has increased slightly in recent years. The state, which lost one congressional district after the 1990 census, will keep its three districts after 2010.

Two Democrats, Reps. Alan Mollohan and Nick J. Rahall, and one Republican, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, hold the state's three seats in Congress.

In 2001, the Democrat-controlled state Legislature actually helped Capito by moving Gilmer County into Mollohan's district and Nicholas County into Rahall's district. Both have had Democratic majorities.

Nick Casey, chairman of the state Democratic Party, said he began thinking about redistricting during the 2006 and 2008 elections, but he believes it might become a major issue after 2010.

"We always thought that redistricting was a sleeper out there, that there could come a time in the future when we might have to face Republican efforts to redistrict in a manner that would enhance their position at the expense of Democrats.

"In the early days of the Bush administration, when the Republican Party was flying higher than it is now, some Republicans had a vision of redistricting West Virginia.

"If the West Virginia Legislature became Republican, they would have an advantage in redistricting," Casey said.

Gary Abernathy, West Virginia Republican Party director, does not anticipate any major changes after 2010. He also believes Capito's seat is secure.

"I don't think the Democrats can redraw districts to cause Shelley to lose a race. She could win in any one of the three congressional districts. I think she could win any statewide race.

"She is about as safe as any politician could be. And I don't think there are many Democrats who would disagree," Abernathy said.

In November, Mollohan won re-election with 187,734 votes, while his two write-in opponents received a combined 130 votes. Rahall beat Republican Marty Gearheart, 133,522 to 66,005. Capito defeated Democrat Anne Barth, 147,334 to 110,819.

"She tends to run consistently well in Kanawha," Abernathy said. "That is where they would really have to slam her hard. I don't think they can slam her hard enough in Kanawha County to hurt her."

In November, Capito won Kanawha County by a margin of 43,601 to 38,751.

"The Eastern Panhandle is also very good for her," Abernathy said. "And with only three [congressional] districts, it is hard to get too creative in redistricting."

After the 2008 elections, Democrats enjoy comfortable majorities in the state Senate (26-8) and the House of Delegates (71-29).

But in 2006, Casey and other Democrats worried about the possible impact of election spending by Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy.

They recalled the 2004 election cycle, when Blankenship spent more than $3 million of his own money, primarily to support the independent group called And For the Sake of the Kids, to defeat the incumbent Democratic Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw.

"In 2006, we were very aware of that," Casey said on Monday. "It was in the long-term interests of the state party to keep an eye on the redistricting issue to be sure we kept a strong Democratic majority in the Legislature."

In 2006, Blankenship spent $3.6 million of his own money on independent political campaign ads urging voters to support 45 specific Republican House candidates. Blankenship's ads also specifically attacked 42 Democrats running for House seats.

But Delegate Margarette Leach, D-Cabell, was the only Democratic incumbent targeted by Blankenship who lost. Leach, then 80, had moved into a nursing home a few weeks before the election.

Blankenship did not play a major role in any 2008 election contest.

The House of Delegates will play the critical role in any redistricting discussions in 2011, Casey said.

Casey believes there "could be a shift of more Democrats" into Capito's 2nd District.

For example, if a Republican-leaning county, like Putnam, were moved out of Capito's district, that could have some impact on the 2012 elections.

Today, Mollohan's 1st District includes most northern counties and the cities of Parkersburg, Fairmont, Morgantown and Wheeling. Capito's 2nd District ranges from the Eastern Panhandle through Charleston over to Mason and Jackson counties on the Ohio River. Rahall's 3rd District in the southern counties includes Beckley, Bluefield, Logan and Huntington.

Each congressional district in the nation must have roughly the same population.