- Associated Press - Saturday, April 19, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - As Republicans rally for more control in West Virginia’s long-time Democratic Legislature, a few Democrats have jumped ship to the GOP and are challenging former colleagues in midterm races.

Republicans face their biggest election opportunity in decades in the House of Delegates, where a four-seat swing would put them in power for the first time in 85 years. The GOP thinks its strategy for federal races translates at the state level: tie state Democrats to President Barack Obama, who lost badly and remains unpopular with West Virginians for policies on coal, social issues and gun rights.

West Virginia Democrats say they don’t align with Washington, D.C., and have their own conservative Democrat brand - one that includes chiding Obama on coal, like proposed coal-fired plant emission standards.

The GOP’s most notable convert is state Sen. Evan Jenkins, who ditched the Democrats to run against 19th-term Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall. In statehouse bids, at least three other ex-Democrats are following Jenkins’ lead.

All 100 House slots are up for election this cycle, as are 17 in the Senate, where Democrats have a 24-10 majority.

But political converts can raise loyalty issues and questions about opportunism, said West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Robert Rupp.

The tactic failed in 2010, when former judge Spike Maynard flipped Republican and lost to Rahall by 12 percentage points.

“On one side, it’s a sign of weakness that the (Republican) party isn’t that built up,” Rupp said. “But on the other side, it’s a sign of a growing strength in the GOP that they are having Democrats bolt party and come over.”

Republicans have fielded candidates for 116 of 117 statehouse slots this cycle. The GOP has essentially locked up 20 seats unopposed by other parties - one held by Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and 19 in the House.

But most action won’t happen until November. Just four Senate seats are contested in May 13 primary matchups: two Democratic, two Republican.

Fewer than half of 67 House districts will include May primary contests. Twenty House districts elect two to five members per race.

In a Harrison County-anchored seat - where Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1 - Democratic Sen. Sam Cann could face a Democrat-turned-Republican if he emerges from a contested primary. Mike Queen, who served as a Democratic House delegate two decades ago, switched parties in August and is waiting unopposed on the Republican ticket.

Despite Queen’s long family involvement in Democratic politics, he said the GOP was a better fit because of pro-life, gun rights and mining issues.

Cann, who works in the oil and natural gas industry, entered the Senate in January 2013 as a Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointee after his predecessor resigned.

For his first Senate election test, Cann has spent $25,300 through late March and raised more than $102,000, one of the Senate’s biggest hauls. Harrison County Commissioner Mike Romano, Cann’s Democratic foe, has already spent $56,500.

The primary has split interest groups. Cann has the backing of the state Chamber of Commerce, coal, oil and gas industries, the NRA and pro-life groups. Romano secured trial lawyers and unions.

In the Northern Panhandle, Del. Ryan Ferns turned Republican to challenge Democratic Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, another senator appointed to fill a vacancy. Ferns said he would resign from his House seat after a first-offense DUI in April 2012. Instead, he won re-election as a Democrat and switched parties last November.

Clarksburg councilwoman Margaret Bailey made the Democrat-to-Republican leap for a bloated Harrison County House race, though she has only raised $500.

Fourteen candidates are competing for four Harrison seats. All four incumbents, including Democratic House Speaker Tim Miley, are vying for re-election.

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