The long and winding road to the long and winding 2nd District
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Voters in West Virginia's 2nd Congressional District today will choose between six-term Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat challenger Howard Swint.
The candidates clash on many issues, including the Bush-era tax cuts, banking regulations, the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act and the federal Environmental Protection Agency's actions against coal mines.
But Swint and Capito do have one thing in common, one simple similarity that could be their biggest liability among Eastern Panhandle voters: their Charleston mailboxes.
"In the panhandle, there is a distinct suspicion of Charleston because they feel disconnected," Capito said. "Part of it is the distance."
But that's not the only reason. For most of West Virginia's history, the 2nd District belonged exclusively to the Panhandle.
When West Virginia joined the Union in June 1863, the newly formed Legislature separated the state into three congressional districts. The 1st District, represented by Jacob Blair of Parkersburg, covered 15 northwestern counties, including the state capital in Wheeling.
Legislators appointed Kellian Whaley of Point Pleasant to represent voters in the 3rd District, which then covered all of southern West Virginia.
William Brown of Kingwood, Preston County, was the 2nd District congressman. His district covered 14 counties in the northeastern part of the state, including the entire Eastern Panhandle.
About 20 years later, the state gained a fourth district.
Congress divvies up seats in the House of Representatives according to each state's population as measured by the U.S. Census. The U.S. Constitution also requires states to revise district maps following each Census to accommodate for population shifts.
Since West Virginia's population began to increase after statehood, lawmakers had to redraw congressional districts in 1882 to include a fourth district built from Ohio Valley counties.
The state added a fifth district in 1901 as population continued to increase, with the new congressman representing southern coalfield counties.
State lawmakers reworked West Virginia's map again in 1915, carving a new congressional district from the old 1st, 3rd and 4th districts.
Through all those changes, however, the 2nd District remained virtually untouched. It would sometimes lose or gain a county or two, but for 100 years the district remained confined to the Eastern Panhandle.
In 1934 lawmakers removed Webster and Pocahontas counties from the 3rd and 5th districts and gave them to the 2nd, kicking off a steady westward creep.
It stayed the same after 1951's reapportionment but gained Greenbrier County in 1961 when West Virginia's declining population knocked the state back to five districts.
When the state lost another seat in the House of Representatives after the 1970 Census, state lawmakers went back to the drawing board and put Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties in the 2nd District.
The district now consumed most of West Virginia's eastern half. It ran from Summers and Monroe County in the south all the way to Monongalia and Preston counties along the Mason-Dixon line and included the entire Eastern Panhandle.
Ken Martis, a West Virginia University professor who specializes in political geography, said the district still was still evenly proportioned.
"This is the least populated area of the state, so it's going to be very large," he explained.
It wasn't until 1991 that the state's congressional district map went awry, Martis said.
West Virginia lost 156,000 residents between the 1980 and 1990 censuses, reducing the state's congressional representation to three House seats.
Lawmakers converged in Charleston in the fall of 1991 to redraw the map. But unlike the state's very first congressional map - which gave northern, eastern and southern counties their own districts - legislators instead chose to stack the new districts like the layers of a cake.
The 1st District, though it still contained many of the same counties it always had, now stretched as far east as Mineral and Grant counties and as far south as Gilmer.
The 3rd District retained all of its southern coalfield counties but expanded eastward to include mountain counties like Greenbrier, Pocahontas, Webster and Nicholas.
The biggest change, however, was in the 2nd District.
Although it still contained most of the Eastern Panhandle, the district now stretched all the way to the Ohio River, the state's western border.
It covered Point Pleasant in Mason County, Summit Point in Jefferson County, and all points in between.
Martis said the new districts defied the state constitution, which requires state congressional districts to be "formed of contiguous counties, and be compact," with populations as close in size as possible.
Martis said the state's founders included those provisions for good reason.
"They put 'compact' in the constitution to stop, what they felt, was an antidemocratic idea of drawing districts in funny shapes for political gain," he said. "You draw a compact district, it's a natural way of putting communities of interest kind of together. This is what the founders wanted.
"And this is what was totally flouted in 1991."
Reducing the number of congressional districts was bound to leave one of the state's congressmen out in the cold, but Martis said legislators intentionally redrew the districts in 1991 to preserve Rep. Bob Wise of the 3rd District, Rep. Nick Rahall of the 4th and Rep. Alan Mollohan of the 1st while ousting 2nd District Rep. Harley Staggers.
Martis calls the move an "intra-party gerrymander."
The new maps allowed Wise, Rahall and Mollohan to hold onto wide swaths of their original districts. Staggers, meanwhile, was placed in the 1st District with only six of his original counties.
Mollohan soundly defeated Staggers in the 1992 primary, winning 13 of the district's 19 counties for 65 percent of the vote.
Wise also retained his House seat that year to represent the reconfigured 2nd District.
'Resistance and esentment'
When Wise was first elected in 1982, his district mostly covered the Kanawha Valley, as well as a few counties in central West Virginia. Traveling from Wirt County to Boone County takes a few hours.
Ten years later, it took Wise nine hours to drive from one end of his district to the other.
"I used to joke and say this is now a bi-coastal district. It starts on the banks of the Shenandoah and finishes some 300 miles later on the banks of the Ohio," he said.
He remembers talking with a Los Angeles-area congressman about the long trips.
"He said, 'It takes me 45 minutes to get across mine . . . in rush hour,' " Wise said.
Wise said there also was a profound sense of bitterness in the eastern part of the state. He said Eastern Panhandle residents were wary of a Charleston-based politician representing their interests. It wasn't easy to win voters' trust.
"I ran into a lot of resistance and resentment," he said. "It's really easy to assume the person 300 miles away is totally different."
He established an office in Martinsburg, and also created a mobile office so there would be a congressional representative in each Eastern Panhandle county at least once a month.
"My goal was to bring Charles Town and Charleston good representation," he said.
He also made it a point to visit the area, usually once a week. Soon, he was spending just as much time in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties as Kanawha, Putnam and Mason. The Eastern Panhandle's close proximity to the nation's capital allowed him to make appearances at meetings and gatherings on a regular basis, as long as he beat rush hour.
"I often would leave Washington Thursday night or Friday, spend a day working in the eastern part of the district, keep heading west and get to Charleston, and sometimes finish up Sunday on the Ohio River, turn around and drive back," he said.
Wise said voters' opinions slowly began to change. Although he lost Morgan County in 1992, Wise soon was winning the Republican-dominated county each time his name was on the ballot.
He said the new, larger district also helped his 2000 campaign for governor.
"It exposed me and brought me into contact with just about every situation that one encounters in West Virginia," he said. "Every day was always something new."
Old tensions return
Despite the controversy in 1991, West Virginia's congressional districts caused little stir when state lawmakers revised the map in 2001.
The House of Delegates' redistricting committee proposed a plan that year to move Gilmer County from the 2nd District into the 1st and shift Nicholas County from the 2nd to the 3rd. With the proposal lacking support, the maps remained unchanged.
But the old tensions between the Eastern Panhandle and the Kanawha Valley did not go away. When lawmakers met in 2011 to redraw the congressional districts, a new battle over the state's oddly shaped districts began.
This time, the fight went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called legislators back to Charleston in August of last year, most members of the state House and Senate backed a redistricting plan that would keep the districts largely the same.
The only change this time would be Mason County, which would move from Capito's 2nd District to Rep. David McKinley's 3rd. Otherwise, the state's long, layered districts remained intact.
But Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, had another idea. He proposed a so-called "Perfect Plan."
It created three more compact districts and would have evened the district populations, giving the 3rd just one more person than the 1st and 2nd.
There were problems with Unger's maps, however.
The "Perfect Plan" would have split some counties between congressional districts, something the state has long tried to avoid. But perhaps more importantly, it would have put Capito and McKinley's homes in the same district, pitting them against one other in this year's election.
The Legislature threw out Unger's plan, despite his warnings the issue would end up in federal court.
The Jefferson County Commission sued the state three months later, and the case was soon before a federal three-judge panel.
State lawmakers defended their maps, saying they wanted to protect incumbents and avoid splitting counties among districts. The panel, however, sided with the Jefferson County Commission.
In a Jan. 3 ruling, the judges declared the new maps were unconstitutional and gave lawmakers 14 days to redraw them. If the state chose not to comply, judges threatened a federal court would redraw the districts for them.
The judges backed down a week later but gave the Legislature a choice: either appeal their decision to the U.S. Supreme Court or come up with a new redistricting plan that would pass muster.
The state chose the former, and nine months later justices overturned the panel's ruling and declared the redistricting maps were, indeed, constitutional.
Justices said state lawmakers were allowed to draw somewhat unequal districts, because the Legislature has a legitimate interest in keeping incumbent members of Congress from competing with one another.
The 2nd, all 300 miles of it, was allowed to stand.
'Go there and be there'
When Swint began campaigning in the Eastern Panhandle, he quickly realized television advertising was out of his reach because most stations there are based in the Washington, Hagerstown, Md. or Baltimore areas.
"It isn't cost-effective," he said.
Capito said she faced the same problem when she first ran for Congress in 2000.
"In the Eastern Panhandle, most of the media is looking east," she said. "It is difficult to campaign, initially. It's tough to get your name out."
She said the best way to reach voters was to "go there and be there.
"In order to know it best, you have to be there. You have to make friends there. It's not just kind of a drop-in situation where you cut a ribbon and leave," Capito said.
Swint came to the same conclusion. Although his campaign relies mainly on yard signs and an Internet-based social media campaign, Swint also spent as much time as possible in the Eastern Panhandle. And almost all his staff, including his campaign manager, is based there.
"If you don't already have name recognition, you either buy it or earn it," he said.
He's confident all those miles from Charleston to Charles Town will pay off once the polls close today.
"If the election's close, Berkeley County may well decide it," Swint said. "We have come to view that as the key to the whole election if it's close.
"And we believe it will be close."