CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Republican congressman Evan Jenkins announced Monday that he will challenge Democratic incumbent Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia in next year's midterm election.
Jenkins' candidacy ensures the West Virginia race will be one of the top Senate contests of 2018 as Manchin tries to hang onto his seat in a deeply red state.
Manchin is a popular former governor who is among the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, but West Virginia is increasingly hostile territory for his party. The state went for President Donald Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton by more than 40 percentage points last year.
Republicans currently control the Senate by a slim 52-48 margin.
Jenkins, in his second term, released an announcement video Monday in which he accused Manchin of losing touch with West Virginia values. Manchin is considered among the most conservative Democrats in Congress. He was the only Democrat to cross party lines and vote to confirm Jeff Sessions as attorney general.
Jenkins is the first major candidate to challenge Manchin, saying he wants "to help bring West Virginia back, bonded by our shared conservative values and our special way of life.
"And with Donald Trump in the White House, we've got a real chance to turn things around," Jenkins said. "He needs our help, and I need your help."
West Virginia continues to be one of the poorest states in the nation, ranking 49th in per capita income, and is among those to lose thousands of jobs in the coal industry's downturn this decade.
During a campaign visit to Charleston last May, Trump vowed to put miners back to work. In an April jobs report, coal mining, construction and manufacturing accounted for less than 6 percent of new job growth.
In a statement, Manchin campaign spokesman Jefrey Pollock said the senator "has always been an independent fighter for West Virginia, willing to take on either party to do what is right for his state. He looks forward to seeing the results of the GOP primary and having the voters review his clear record of delivering results for the people of West Virginia."
Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said Jenkins' candidacy for Senate is no surprise "given the trajectory of his political career. The wind, in a sense, is on his back in terms of seizing an opportunity."
Rupp said he expects the race to be competitive and the mostly closed watched Senate campaign from West Virginia in a generation.
"At least we're going to get some attention," he said. "At issue is not just Republican-continued control of the Senate. It's also a concerted effort to defeat a blue-dog Democrat in a red state."
In the latest campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Jenkins had $1.04 million cash on hand, compared with $2.17 million for Manchin.
Jenkins unseated 19-term Democrat Nick Rahall in West Virginia's 3rd House District race in 2014 and won re-election in 2016. Before being elected to Congress, Jenkins was a three-term state senator. He switched from Democrat to Republican in July 2013 to face Rahall.
Manchin won a 2010 special election to complete the term left by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, then was elected to his first full term in 2012.
Manchin announced in April 2015 that he would seek another term in the Senate and not run for West Virginia governor in 2016, a post he held from 2005 to 2010.