From 1932 to 2014, West Virginia was solidly in the camp of the Democrats. Both houses of their legislature were controlled by Democrats. In 1998, 63% of voters were registered as Democrats and only 29% Republican. By 2019, Republican registration increased nominally to 33%, but Democrat registration plummeted to 41%. The remainder had switched to “no party,” or independent.
The decline of the Democrats in West Virginia revealed a long-standing contradiction in their party. They relied heavily on organized labor and support from coal industry executives. With the decline of the coal industry- some of it attributable to Obama’s ill-fated war on coal in the name of climate change, and some of it attributable to the increase of natural gas- the party became more accountable to industry executives. The GOP message placed the blame squarely at the feet of the Democrats and their aversion to coal and Democrats were caught flat-footed. Instead of a more cogent message, they attacked the notion of a war on coal. With coal mining areas in economic distress, voters heard only about the war on coal and believed it as paychecks declined and many lost jobs.
Besides a presidential election in 2020, West Virginia will have a gubernatorial election. Jim Justice, the current Governor, was elected as a Democrat and then changed party affiliations after being elected.
When talking about West Virginia politics, inevitably the conversation eventually settles upon one man- current Democrat senator Joe Manchin. Above all else, Manchin proved as governor that he is pro-coal. His former campaign manager- Larry Puccio- engineered Justice’s victory as Governor. Puccio chaired the Democratic Party in the state from 2010 to 2015 and was succeeded by Belinda Biafore, his cousin. As such, Manchin has emerged as the most prominent Democrat in West Virginia since Robert Byrd’s death in 2010.
Manchin is eyeing an exit from the US Senate for another gubernatorial run. He has said through associates that he may even leave before the 2020 elections. Of course, he uses the well-worn “lack of bipartisanship” excuse most retiring legislators use.
However, Manchin may have some competition on his hands in a classic battle of the consummate outsider in the name of Stephen Smith often described as a genuine Democrat populist. This 39-year-old community activist would present a classic battle of the outsider (Smith) versus the establishment Goliath (Manchin). And this has Democrats scared s***less.
In 1996 in his first gubernatorial bid, Manchin lost to Charlotte Pruitt in the primary. He then orchestrated a campaign called “Democrats for Underwood” which helped secure a victory for Republican Cecil Underwood. This was in an era where Democrats outnumbered Republicans in the state 2:1.
Currently, Appalachia epitomizes the forces of frustration and antiestablishment sentiment that produced Donald Trump. It is the reason West Virginia gave him over 60% of the vote in 2016 against the ultimate political insider, Hillary Clinton. Additionally, they have been profiled endlessly by the liberal press and become a ready stand-in for Trump voters. They can parody and joke all they like, but these are very real people with very real problems brought on by very real Democrats.
Should Manchin decide on a gubernatorial run against Jim Justice, he will definitely feel pressure from the more liberal wing of the Democrats. He will be running not only against Jim Justice, but Trump himself who everyone knows damn well will campaign for Justice. The two have forged a close relationship and Trump still enjoys a 54% approval rating in West Virginia. Already the more liberal of the Democrats are bemoaning the fact that Manchin voted to confirm Kavanaugh, was against the Dream Act, supports a border wall and a host of other liberal sins.
On the GOP side, there is some rancor as the former head of the Wood county GOP has sued the state party claiming their ouster was illegal. Named in the suit is GOP party chief in the state, Melody Potter. Potter dismissed the official claiming they showed “multiple acts of constant disunity.” In fact, the official had been critical of Justice and Potter. The official, Rob Cornelius, penned an open letter calling for the impeachment of certain state leaders and seemed to intimate that Governor Justice was on that list. The court case is continuing in the state and it is a distraction as we head into 2020.
Should Manchin decide to leave the Senate for a gubernatorial run, it would most likely require a special election to replace him. Given the recent trends in West Virginia, that has given even the most stalwart liberals cause for concern. Although they cannot necessarily count on Manchin in the Senate for their pet causes, he still has the “D” after his name. One liberal website basically called him a necessary evil in order to make Democratic gains elsewhere easier. The theory goes, if the Democrats capture the Senate in 2020, they could always deal with Manchin from a position being in the majority. Should Manchin exit the Senate, it opens a vulnerable Senate seat for a GOP pick-up making all their plans elsewhere considerably much more complicated.
One caveat, however: Even though West Virginia has lurched to the Republican Party, those numbers cited at the beginning have to be held in perspective. Former Democrats did not necessarily jump into the Republican orbit en masse. The bulk of them became independents and in 2016 those independents liked the message of Donald Trump. It was an antiestablishment, populist message. Economically, even Politifact says the economy of the state is better today than it was under Obama and Democrats. Unemployment is down, labor force participation and state GDP is up, and a host of other encouraging economic signs. That is and should be the message going forward. One can venture that the voters of West Virginia see Democratic attacks on Trump not on President Trump, but on their very selves.
Those same independent voters who forsook years of allegiance to the Democrats have to ask themselves whether things are better under Trump, or under a Democrat as president. The Potter-Cornelius spat is an unfortunate sideshow, but one that should not distract the average voter in West Virginia come 2020. In the end, voters care less about internecine warfare in a political party and more about a job and a paycheck.