CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Facing his toughest re-election in decades, Democratic U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall sat down three supporters outside an idyllic general store in West Virginia for a TV ad.
Miffed, the pro-coal trio lamented that wealthy out-of-towners keep spending millions of dollars to blast their congressman.
"New York City?!" they cried. "They're not telling me how to vote."
For Rahall, it's something of a double standard. Similar help has lined up for him in a money-flushed race.
Four months from Election Day, outside liberal and conservative groups have already infused about $3.3 million in ads blasting Rahall and his Republican opponent Evan Jenkins.
Three well-heeled groups — the liberal House Majority PAC; and the conservative Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance — are making Rahall's race a top target. The groups can't work directly with candidates, but are feverishly spending on their behalf.
A 19-term Democrat, Rahall has locked down southern West Virginia and its coalfields since 1977. Called "Nick Joe" and "congressman" almost interchangeably, Rahall has longstanding community in-roads, congressional seniority and a track record of bringing home federal cash.
He has a delicate dance to pull off in West Virginia, however. The state's stances on gun rights, social issues like abortion and coal policies clash with the national Democratic establishment. That's why West Virginia is taking a sharp turn to the political right, particularly at the federal level.
President Barack Obama lost West Virginia badly twice and remains remarkably unpopular there — especially in Rahall's coal-centric district. Obama's push to limit carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, which Rahall opposes, is at the crux of his election. The rule is viewed as an affront to West Virginia's signature industry.
"It would be a trophy not only in the fact that he was defeated," said Robert Rupp, a political science professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. "But it would be a sign of the transition of the state to Republican."
Conservative groups orchestrated by the billionaire businessmen Koch brothers, whom Rahall's ad decried as rich New Yorkers, have converged on West Virginia.
Americans for Prosperity and American Energy Alliance have shoveled about $2 million combined into ads, many hitting Rahall on coal. In January, Americans for Prosperity unleashed a ground game in West Virginia with a handful of paid staffers.
Rahall, who has received coal industry donations, is painstakingly trying to separate himself from Obama energy policies.
"In the alternate Koch Universe, I'm a coal-fighting, job-killing, far-left loony," Rahall wrote in a recent fundraising email plea. "Well, that's some serious nonsense."
Democrats are defending Rahall's seat through the House Majority PAC, which has spent $1.1 million on ads against Jenkins, a state senator who turned from Democrat to Republican to run. Democrats are calling Jenkins a puppet for the Koch brothers.
Critics point out some of House Majority PAC's biggest donors favor a carbon-cutting mandate. The group also doesn't list any donations from West Virginians this cycle.
"If Rahall wants to try and prove that he isn't just a lying politician who will say anything to get elected, he will publicly demand that the anti-coal House Majority PAC stop airing ads on his behalf," said Ian Prior, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee.
Comparatively, candidate spending has been dwarfed. Rahall has shelled out $509,000 through April. Jenkins has spent $174,500.
Millions of dollars more in outside ads are already booked, like the $1.2 million the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has reserved in September and October. That makes for a long, negative political season in a usually state known for door-to-door retail campaigns, Rupp said.
"We've been fortunate to avoid the large-scale, expensive ads of the campaigns that have gone on in other states," Rupp said. "And that era is passing."