How Do You Solve a Problem Like West Virginia?

Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) with President Barack Obama
Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) with President Barack Obama

How the mighty have fallen.

For generations, West Virginia was among the most reliably Democratic states in the union.  Democrats dominated West Virginia at the local, state and national level.  The Party often controlled more than 90 percent of the seats in the state legislature in the 1960s and 1970s, for example.  As recently as 1996, Bill Clinton bested Republican Bob Dole by more than 15 percent in that year’s presidential election.  At the same time, Democrats won 76.7 percent and 87.8 percent of the vote, respectively, in the state’s U.S. Senate and House contests.

Fast-forward just a decade and a half, and West Virginia is among the strongest of GOP strongholds on the federal level.  According to the Secretary of State’s office, Barack Obama won just 35 percent of the votes in West Virginia in 2012.  Obama failed to carry even one of the state’s 55 counties, the first time any major party was shut out entirely in state history.  (The President also lost ten counties and 41 percent of the vote to Texas inmate Keith Russell Judd in the 2012 Democratic primary.)  For the first time since before the Great Depression, the 2014 midterm elections could allow Republicans to sweep every federal office.

Two of the state’s three House seats are already in GOP hands, and Nick Rahall, the sole remaining Democrat — a man with a perennial target on his back — represents the most conservative district in the state.  More importantly, Democratic Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the liberal scion of one of the nation’s most storied political dynasties, has decided not seek a sixth term.  Shelley Moore Capito, a GOP congresswoman and the daughter of a former governor, is the early frontrunner to succeed him.

Nick Rahall, West Virginia's last remaining Democratic Congressman, stumps for reelection.
Nick Rahall, West Virginia’s last remaining Democratic Congressman, stumps for reelection.

Yet despite these ominous headwinds, Democrats are running formidable candidates in every one of the federal races.  Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s Secretary of State, who defeated a Republican challenger by 25 percent in 2012, will run against Moore Capito for Rockefeller’s seat.  The 64-year-old Rahall has announced he will seek reelection.  And Democrats scored significant recruiting coups in the other two congressional districts — Glen Gainer, who has been state Auditor for the last 21 years, in the First; and Nick Casey, a well-connected attorney and fundraising powerhouse, in the Second.

West Virginia may increasingly look like a lost cause for the Democratic Party, but apparently someone forgot to tell the Democrats.

So what gives?  Why, notwithstanding the GOP’s unfailing march toward dominance, do Democrats continue to put up such a good fight?

Perhaps most importantly, Democrats have a deep and impressive bench from which to recruit in the state.  West Virginia may be culturally conservative and 94 percent white, but Democrats control every statewide office except one.  At the local level, indeed, the Party’s dominance endures.  For example, Republicans still control only just ten of the state senate’s 34 seats.  According to a recent Washington Post article, “Last year in Fayette County, where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won by more than 20 percentage points, only one Republican was running for any local office.  A candidate for magistrate, he lost.”

What’s more, West Virginia Democrats have made an art form of distancing themselves from the national Party.  In 2012, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Sen. Joe Manchin and Rahall all declined to attend the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.  When he was Governor, Manchin also sued the Environmental Protection Agency; and during his 2010 Senate race, Manchin literally shot the 2007 cap-and-trade bill.

Additionally, even as West Virginia’s traditionally strongest industries — like coal, chemical and steel production — have declined in recent years, its union membership is still well above the national average.  The state’s AFL-CIO and Union Miners Workers chapters wield disproportionate political influence, and tend to favor Democrats — contributing money and boots on the ground for their election efforts.

For the time being, West Virginia is somewhat of an anomaly — it is among the first state any GOP presidential candidate can put in the “safe” column, yet Democrats continue to win local offices, long after most other historically Democratic states have moved away from the Party.

As Robert Byrd, West Virginia’s longtime Democratic Senator, used to say of the state: “It is the most Southern of the Northern; the most Northern of the Southern; the most Eastern of the Western; and the most Western of the Eastern states.”

Come November of 2014, Republicans may find themselves claiming victory in every single one of the state’s federal elections.  But, remarkably, Democrats are putting up a pretty good fight.

Published by Eric Stern

Eric Stern, from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is Editor-in-Chief of The Politic.

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