West Virginia is a red state, and you can blame George W. Bush.
That might sound premature, as the state still has two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor, a Democrat-controlled House of Delegates, and a Democrat-controlled state Senate. But it isn’t.
Next week, it’s almost guaranteed that the state will send a Republican to the U.S. Senate for the first time since 1958. There’s also a realistic chance that all three of West Virginia’s congressional seats will be filled by Republicans. In 2012, it elected its first Republican attorney general in almost 100 years. And it’s voted for the Republican presidential nominee in every election of this millennium. West Virginia used to be blue. It’s not anymore. Here’s how that happened.
Historically speaking, West Virginia was reliably cobalt until 2000. Coal dominated the state’s economy, and unions dominated its politics. There was also deep-seated, long-lasting loyalty to the party of FDR. Mike Plante, a Charleston-based Democratic consultant, says that WPA projects dotting the state are constant visual reminders of the New Deal’s impact. And West Virginians didn’t just love FDR: Eleanor Roosevelt also won affection for helping start Arthurdale, a planned community for economically disadvantaged West Virginians.
John F. Kennedy was also beloved. Though the state had a tiny Catholic population in 1960, he worked hard to win it in the Democratic primary (a victory that was key to winning the Democratic nomination). On a rainy day in 1963, he gave a speech in the statehouse courtyard that included a line West Virginia Democrats have been quoting ever since: “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do.” They liked him, a lot.
But by 2000, tectonic changes in the state’s politics were underway. West Virginians tended to be economically liberal but socially conservative, and as social issues like abortion came to the forefront in national politics, the state started looking better for Republicans. The leftward tilt of the national Democratic Party helped matters, too.
And in 2000, that shift in the state—from blue to purple—caught Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore off guard. Former West Virginia Democratic Party chairman George Carenbauer, who worked on Bill Clinton’s West Virginia presidential campaigns, said Gore’s team ignored warnings that they needed to fight to win the Mountain State.
“I think they spent $300 there or something,” he says with a laugh.
George W. Bush and his strategists saw polling that indicated that the state could be in play, so they outspent the vice president there, and they won it. Bush won the presidential election by 5 Electoral College votes, the same number allotted to West Virginia.
For Democrats, it’s been downhill from there. West Virginia has voted for the Republican nominee in every subsequent presidential election. And in the 2012 Democratic presidential primary, President Barack Obama beat prison inmate Keith Judd by just 16 percentage points.
Part of the reason for the president’s popularity problem is—no debate here—coal. The Environmental Protection Agency’s tough new coal regulations have hit the state’s economy hard. And though Democrats, including Plante, argue that the story of the state’s economic woes is more complicated than “Obamacare and the war on coal are taking all your jobs,” that’s largely the message voters have heard. And it’s a message that, per Carenbauer, has gone largely unchallenged by the state’s Democrats.
“Democrats have accepted being on the defensive,” he said. “That’s the most frustrating thing.”
He added that West Virginia is one of the states that could benefit most from the Affordable Care Act, but that Democrats have done an ineffective job of communicating this to voters.
“Can you imagine FDR being on the defense in West Virginia for Social Security?” he said.
The Republican Senate nominee, Shelley Moore Capito, will probably walk away with a win. She’ll be the first Republican to win a Senate race there since 1958, and she’ll make it look easy. The state’s two competitive House races are both toss-ups, so it wouldn’t be shocking (and it certainly wouldn’t buck the trend lines) for West Virginia to send an all-Republican House delegation to Congress in 2015.
But even more significantly, Republicans could flip the House of Delegates.
“Republicans have their best chance in 80 years of gaining control of the House of Delegates,” said longtime West Virginia radio broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval, “and because of that, they’ve recruited good candidates, they’ve run aggressive campaigns.”
He added that labor unions have responded with a $1 million ad campaign aimed at keeping that from happening. It’s an enormous amount of money to be spent on state legislative races (in a state with a fairly cheap media market, no less), and it indicates they’re taking Republicans’ ambitions seriously.
So here’s a hypothetical: Let’s assume that this fall Republicans win the House of Delegates, and narrow Democrats’ majority in the state Senate. And let’s also assume that they win the race for the governorship in 2016—it will be open, as the incumbent Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will be term-limited out—and that they then consolidate their control of the state Senate. Then what?
Per Americans for Tax Reform state affairs manager Paul Blair, who keeps close tabs on the state, Republicans would likely flirt with a right-to-work bill and some form of paycheck protection legislation. In other words, it’s possible there would be a head-on collision with the interests of organized labor. And if that happens, things could be very interesting in West Virginia in 2017.
“With regard to so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation, it could become a rally point for labor and revitalize the labor-progressive coalition,” Plante said.
Republican state governments have happily taken on unions in deep-blue Michigan and Wisconsin. West Virginia could be next.