OAK HILL, W.Va. (AP) — Democrat Nick Rahall, a southern West Virginia face so familiar he goes by "Nick Joe," bears an Obama burden like few others in Congress as he faces his toughest re-election fight in almost four decades.
Rahall's 3rd District hardly resembles the Democratic stronghold it once was. In the seat snaking through the coalfields, Mitt Romney trounced President Barack Obama by 32 percentage points in 2012. Rahall, who supported the president's election twice, still pulled off an 8-point win.
The 19th-term incumbent is West Virginia's last Democratic member in the House. None of West Virginia's 55 counties preferred Obama. But, last election, Rahall's constituents rebuked the president the most.
Here, Appalachian coal's downward spiral is clear. Companies are shuttering mines and laying off miners, many who have known no other lifestyle.
In his push to stem global warming, Obama has proposed cutting down carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants nationwide. Many in the Mountain State fear it will be an unprecedented nail in the coffin for Appalachian coal, piling onto bigger market and geological woes. Rahall has vowed to fight Obama and the regulations.
"Their proposals are sending a chilling effect throughout the coalfields," said Rahall, 65.
His GOP competitor, Evan Jenkins, and outside groups are pouring in millions of dollars focusing on fear and fervor over coal. They label Rahall as a double-talker on coal and ally of Obama.
"These last number of years, he has been a foot soldier for the Obama-Pelosi agenda that's devastating jobs in our state," Jenkins said, referring to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Rahall calls Jenkins a puppet for shadowy groups, many of them fueled by the billionaire businessmen Koch brothers.
In his corner, Rahall has congressional seniority, a first-name-basis relationship with voters and a ground game he calls one of the greatest in the country. Democratic allies are also spending millions on his behalf.
Add it up, and the contest will stay close, bruising and expensive.
At a campaign event Wednesday, Jenkins, a state senator, singled out a group of miners in an Oak Hill rec center. They wore blue work clothes striped with orange reflective strips.
The group received warnings that their jobs with Alpha Natural Resources could disappear by Nov. 26, three weeks after the election and a day before Thanksgiving. Alpha partly blamed federal regulations in the layoff notice, which originally said 1,100 could lose their jobs. Alpha laid off 261 mine workers last month, and hundreds more will learn their fate in late November.
David McGraw, a 31-year-old mine engineer, said he's politically independent. His votes have ranged from President George W. Bush to Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin. But he won't support Rahall this election.
"Something gotta happen. Something's gotta give," said McGraw, who lives with his wife in Oak Hill. "Things ain't getting no better here."
Jenkins' fiery rhetoric against Democrats is a stark turnaround. In July 2013, he changed from Democrat to Republican to run against Rahall. He also once switched to Republican to vote for a friend running for city council, then changed right back to the Democratic Party.
Jenkins, a 54-year-old who has served in the state Legislature since 1994, says he hasn't voted for a Democratic president since Bill Clinton in 1996. Neither has the entire state, even though registered Democrats outnumber Republicans almost 2-to-1.
Jenkins hasn't always been at odds with Rahall, either. He donated $500 to Rahall's re-election campaign in October 2010 — after Rahall supported Obama's election and voted for the Affordable Care Act, which Jenkins wants to repeal and replace.
Much of the fight has taken place on TV airwaves. Media buy breakdowns say about $12.8 million could be spent on ads by Election Day.
Conservative groups, like those fueled by the Kochs and former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove, have invested millions to oust Rahall. The House Majority PAC has been Rahall's biggest defender by attacking Jenkins.
Both sides have provided a field day for fact checkers.
Multiple groups have called Rahall's claim that Jenkins wants to strip miners' black lung benefits one of the worst this election cycle. Rahall stands by it, saying Jenkins' promise to repeal the Affordable Care Act would strip a provision about black lung. But Jenkins has clarified he would replace the law, and would preserve black lung benefits.
The National Republican Congressional Committee has run ads saying Rahall voted with Obama 94 percent of the time. According to the Congressional Quarterly voting analysis, that was true only in 2009. The percentage dropped every year and in 2013 hit 58 percent, the 11th-lowest rate out of House Democrats.
Any perceived or actual tie to the president has become campaign fodder against Rahall, especially after he played pool with Obama during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary season. The image has been plastered all over ads, though Rahall called it "hogwash."
"He cleaned my clock," Rahall said. "No, I don't regret that."