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.