Teen candidate makes run for WV House of Delegates

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MARTINSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — Saira Blair's geology exam was a breeze but her second test was 135 miles away. So, the 18-year-old West Virginia University freshman, who hopes to become the state's youngest legislator, spent the rest of her morning driving to her hometown.

There, the president of the Eastern Panhandle Business Association gave the young Republican a good-natured but no-nonsense introduction. Hoy Shingleton said: "Tell us why we ought to elect somebody who knows nothing and is an 18-year-old going to college."

As attendees chuckled — "That was harsh," one man said — Blair smiled and responded, "Of course." At the podium, she whipped through her platform of lowering business taxes and making West Virginia a "right to work" state. Applause. The conservative PAC's endorsement should be a lock.

Afterward, Blair and her father, state Sen. Craig Blair, exchanged a fist bump in the parking lot.

Blair has become something of a celebrity since her shock victory over a two-term incumbent in the Republican primary in May, when she was 17 and still in high school. She was interviewed on Fox & Friends and was featured in Teen Vogue.

If she defeats Democrat Layne Diehl and a third-party candidate on Nov. 4, Blair would become the youngest lawmaker in state history.

But first, Blair must prove herself under the general election spotlight, while opponents tiptoe around her age and inexperience. Playing hardball against a teenaged media darling is risky. Blair's former civics teacher, a Democrat, supports her. She even has apple pie on her side, having worked on her family's apple orchard.

"It's true I don't have as much life experience, but I think I also bring a fresh perspective," Blair said. "Right now, my generation is not being represented in any sense of the word."

If elected, Blair will defer her spring semester, when the Legislature is in session. The job pays $20,000.

Democrats in the state's conservative 59th District, consisting of voters in two counties near the Virginia and Maryland borders, figured they'd be facing Republican Delegate Larry Kump, 66.

Instead, they get Blair, a milkshake-drinking former president of Hedgesville High School's "High Voltage" show choir. Think an ultra-conservative Rachel Berry from "Glee," minus the two gay dads, of course.

Blair's message of jobs, guns and Christianity were well-received here. She advocates for random drug testing of welfare recipients, and opposes gay marriage and abortion, no exceptions.

"If the voters believe that a 17-year-old, or an 18-year-old now, is able to represent them and that her perspective is important, then I'm going to respect the will of the voters," said Diehl, 44.

Diehl, a lawyer and mother of two, is a first-time candidate and describes herself as moderate. She wants to create jobs through investments in education, tourism and entrepreneurship. She wants better oversight of big business, pointing to the Elk River chemical spill.

Diehl, who formerly led the Martinsburg campus of the now-defunct Mountain State University, said she's spent much of her career helping young people.

"I'm not going to give people a cat fight," said Diehl, whose husband, Nicolas, donated to Craig Blair's 2010 campaign. The families have played "cornhole" in Blair's backyard.

But then there are the yellow T-shirts with the "Let's Get Serious" slogan. Diehl said it was a response to the media attention on Blair's primary victory.

"Let's Get Serious is about me," Diehl said. "I'm a serious candidate."

Blair said she's not worried about the T-shirt.

"She could potentially be talking about me, she could be talking about my generation, she could be talking about the Democratic rule we've had for 83 years," Blair said.

Republicans have gained ground in West Virginia and don't want to concede a seat as they seek control of the House for the first time since the Great Depression.

Neil Berch, a WVU political science professor, described Blair as "a significant favorite" in the race, which includes Jeff Becker of the Constitution Party.

"It's a trickier situation than running against somebody who is 30 or 35," Berch said. "They have to stay on ideology. Personal attacks on an 18-year-old are not going to go well."

Becker, an insurance salesman, said Blair beat Kump because "he didn't even campaign." Kump declined to comment.

Blair, who skipped her junior prom to attend a student government seminar that was "the most amazing weekend of my life," doesn't want to be treated with kid gloves.

"People are more filtered around me. It's a little unnecessary," she said. "The criticism that I can get will never be worse that any type of criticism you'll get being a high school girl, from your peers."

Civility is a West Virginia tradition, Diehl said.

"You can differ in your opinions," the Democrat said, "but at the end of the day you can still play cornhole in somebody's backyard and enjoy their company."

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