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Fifty years ago West Virginia had five congressional districts — meaning five representatives in Congress — but over time with a population decline, the state has dropped to three. The second largest is District 1, which encompasses 20 counties in the northern part of the state that will be voting for their representation this year.
For the 2020 general election, Republican incumbent David McKinley hopes to retain the seat he has held for five terms against Democratic newcomer Nataline Cline.
District 1 represents much of the state’s rust belt, rural farms and timber production. Major cities and towns in the district include Clarksburg, Morgantown, Parkersburg and Wheeling.
It also includes West Virginia University, the largest four-year school in the state, as well as the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services headquarters, which opened in 1995. More people in the region are employed in education, health care or social services than anywhere else in the state, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau study.
Unlike the rest of the state, which has a population decline, District 1 has seen little to no changes in its population in the past 20 years. But the district still shares many of the same concerns as the rest of the state, especially with the pandemic, said Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at WVU.
“I think a lot of people will be focused on jobs and access to health care,” he said. “I mean I don’t really think the district stands out from a lot of other districts.”
For almost 60 years prior to McKinley’s first election in 2010, District 1 only changed leadership four times, and three of the congressmen were related. The office was held primarily by Democrats until McKinley took office. Crichlow said McKinley has a long political history in the district.
“He’s from the Northern Panhandle. He’s been in the state house for a long time and the party chair, a businessman, and so he’s been the incumbent for 10 years now,” Crichlow said. “He’s not faced a very strong challenge in the last 10 years, at least in terms of the outcomes of the elections.”
McKinley did not respond to West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s multiple requests for an interview and neither did chairs of GOP executive committees in the district.
McKinley has served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee his entire time in office. In recent years, he has been a close ally of President Donald Trump in terms of his voting record.
McKinley voted against the president’s impeachment. However, he supported proposed funding for the border wall and limiting legal immigration. He also voted in favor of a proposal that would have made abortions illegal after 20 weeks, except under specific circumstances.
Most recently, McKinley voted against the latest COVID relief bill in the House, citing its partisan nature, but he has signed a petition to extend the paycheck protection program for small businesses.
According to his website, one of McKinley’s big priorities is supporting the coal industry, which hit its lowest levels of production in four decades last year, despite President Trump’s push to revive the slumping industry.
“When I came here in 2010…there were 700 coal-fired power plants…now we only have just over 200 coal-fired power plants,” McKinley said in an Oct. 1 Energy and Commerce Committee hearing. “But what I’m not seeing is any measurable decrease whatsoever in asthma, lung disease, cardiovascular disease. I’m asking, can someone show me that doing away with coal actually improves our health for all these communities?”
However, studies show a decrease in coal-related respiratory issues would not necessarily align with a decline in the industry. In fact, it can take a minimum of 10 years since initial exposure for someone to start exhibiting symptoms from those types of diseases.
McKinley’s opponent, Democrat candidate Natalie Cline, is focusing her campaign on healthcare, education and the economy. She is part of the West Virginia Can’t Wait Movement — a grassroots, progressive effort that has candidates up and down the ballot across the state in this election. Like other candidates in the movement, she has pledged not to take donations from large corporations or their political action committees.
As for the coal industry, she said her position is to expand the energy sector — bringing alternative jobs to communities that have historically relied on the once-thriving industry.
Cline is originally from Williamstown, West Virginia but now lives in Wheeling. She works as a computational linguist for a software company and has taught at both WVU and George Mason University. Although she has never held public office, she said what inspired her to run was moving back to the state a few years ago, after a five-year stint in D.C.
“I felt like a little bit of culture shock and it really bothered me that this is the place where I grew up, this is a place that made me who I am — how can it feel so different?” Cline said. “And a lot of the things that I was noticing were things that were preventable and had everything to do with policy decisions, and, you know, lobbyist, money and politics, most of it stemming from the opioid epidemic.”
Cline said addressing the opioid epidemic and mental health issues that can lead to addiction are her top priorities. If elected she said she would propose the ‘Family Reinvestment Act,’ which would provide federal funding for health crises like the opioid epidemic, focusing both on public schools and communities.
Cline supports universal health care. However, if it cannot be passed in such a partisan climate, she said there needs to be some improvements to the nation’s healthcare system.
“We at least need to start introducing other groups into Medicare, so that we can start expanding it and get people the health care they deserve,” she said.
Another important issue to Cline is broadband access, which is front and center with more children and adults learning and working remotely because of the pandemic. Her campaign is calling it the ‘Gen Z Initiative,’ which would create zero cost virtual courses for upcoming high school graduates, primarily focusing on science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“So these can be anything from programming and coding, to you know, being more interested in vertical farming or other technologies,” Cline said. “And we want to work with communities that are seeing population loss.”
The goal is to keep young people in the state, Cline said.