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West Virginia women have chance for sweep in US House races

June 4, 2018
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In a March 1, 2018 photo, Democrat Talley Sergent talks to a supporter inside her campaign headquarters in Charleston, W.Va. She is running for Congress in West Virginia's 2nd District against incumbent Republican Alex Mooney. (Chris Dorst/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Female candidates have a chance to sweep all three of West Virginia’s U.S. House races this fall as part of a national wave that saw a record number of women from the two major parties file for the midterm elections.

Such an outcome would leave West Virginia with a divided congressional delegation not just by party affiliation but by gender. That would be unprecedented in a state that’s elected just two women to Congress in its 155-year history. One of them, Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, is the state’s only current female representative.

Democrat Kendra Fershee defeated two others in the May primary and will face incumbent Republican David McKinley in the 1st District in November, while Democrat Talley Sergent will meet 2nd District GOP Rep. Alex Mooney.

In the 3rd District, where GOP Rep. Evan Jenkins made a failed run for U.S. Senate, Republican Carol Miller will take on Democrat Richard Ojeda this fall.

The national surge in female candidates, most of them Democrats, had been expected since the Women’s March demonstrations just after President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.

“I think women are motivated right now,” Fershee said. “I think women are a driving force behind our success, but I also think men are liking what we’re saying.”

This year five women ran in the three U.S. House primary races in West Virginia, compared with none in 2016.

“Historically, West Virginia’s congressional delegation has never been friendly toward women,” said Robert Rupp, a West Virginia Wesleyan College political history professor. “In a sense, West Virginia is playing catch-up. The only interesting news is that it took them this long.”

Maude Kee was the first woman from West Virginia elected to Congress after the death of her husband, Rep. John Kee. She served in the U.S. House from 1951 to 1964 and was succeeded by her son, James.

The only other congresswoman from the state was Capito, who was elected to the House in 2000 and served seven terms before being elected as a U.S. senator in 2014.

In between Kee and Capito, female candidates infrequently sought a seat in Congress. From 1964 to 1998, no more than two women in any year ran for either the U.S. Senate or U.S. House races in West Virginia. Four times during that span there were no female candidates, and 10 other times there was one. Records for the 1974 primary were unavailable on the secretary of state’s website.

Miller is the only one among the three current female candidates with experience in political office. She has served 12 years in the state House of Delegates and is the daughter of the late Ohio Congressman Samuel Devine.

Miller declined an interview request. Her campaign said in a statement that she will lean on her experiences, including as a wife, mother and grandmother, “to bring West Virginia values to Washington DC.”

Sergent, the state presidential campaign director for Hillary Clinton in 2016, said she was miffed at the Republican-controlled Congress for its work on the health care overhaul last year. But what drove her into candidate mode for the first time was the state’s opioid epidemic. West Virginia leads the nation by far in the rate of drug overdose deaths.

Sergent said addiction is a personal issue. Her sister is an addict and Sergent’s mother has adopted her sister’s 11-year-old daughter.

“I’m running for her and for kids all over this state and for grandparents and for people who are fighting this drug epidemic every single day,” Sergent said. “Congress is not helping us, and we need a friend and a fighter in Congress that will.”

Like Sergent, Fershee also is a first-time candidate.

A West Virginia University law professor and an associate dean of academic affairs, Fershee said she was turned off by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump in the 2016 campaign as well as the voting record of McKinley, a four-term incumbent.

The day after Trump’s election, Fershee made a post on social media asking other women to run for office, “and they all said, ‘We agree, you should run,’” Fershee said. “And I was like, ‘That’s not what I meant when I tagged you.’”

One day while mowing her lawn, Fershee said, “it hit me that I could do this, actually.”

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