What’s wrong in Appalachia (And what do we do about it?)

The early November statewide elections in Kentucky and West Virginia were something of a yawn compared to the excitement of 2009 where big Republican wins in Virginia and New Jersey presaged the 2010 wave that swept Republicans into a dominant position in the House and in states nationwide.

In Kentucky, Republican nominee David Williams was never really a threat to Steve Beshear.

In West Virginia the race was at least closer with Bill Maloney (and some timely help from the RGA) giving Earl Ray Tomblin a real race.  But here too, Republicans not could get over the “Appalachian effect” that keeps conservative Democrats in office even as their national party heads further left and other conservative Democrats throughout the South and elsewhere have become endangered species.

One strong indicator of how uninteresting these two Appalachian races were is that most of the coverage after Election Day focused on Ohio and Virginia—for initiatives and control of the state legislature—rather than the two states with Governor’s races.

But it’s important to go deeper than just two Governor’s races.  Aaron Blake of the Washington Post has coined the term “Appalachian Bubble” to describe the fact that in both statewide races and in selecting their Congressmen, the Appalachian states and districts seem to be a pocket of resistance against the Republican takeover of the South and rural places across the country.

So what’s going on?  Let’s start by looking at two Governor’s races:  Last week’s election in West Virginia and the election two years ago in neighboring Virginia.  Some of the differences between the support that Maloney received in West Virginia and the support that McDonnell won in Virginia can be attributed to the political environment—while Obama and Democrats haven’t really regained much popularity, some of the anger at them has ebbed since 2009.  But there are also some fundamental differences between the two races worth examining.


Maloney (WV)

McDonnell (VA)


McCain Voters
















































As you can see, Maloney did significantly worse with McCain voters than did McDonnell and slightly worse with Republicans.  He also lost middle-aged and senior voters at higher rates than he did younger voters and actually out-performed McDonnell among Democrats.  Finally, Maloney underperformed McDonnell with both conservatives and moderates at about the same rate.

In isolation, these numbers don’t tell the whole story.  But for someone whose career in politics and polling has seen the shift of states like Oklahoma and Texas from Democrat-dominated to Republican-dominated and who has recently polled for numerous Republican winners as Louisiana has made the same shift, they are hauntingly familiar.

Here then are three diagnoses and prescriptions to burst the “Appalachian Bubble”:

  • Republicans still have not overcome “cultural Democrats.”

While some in the media and national Democrat wish-casting about 2012 will argue that the poor performance by Maloney among voters aged 45-64 and 65+ was about a successful strategy of attacking him on Republican plans related to Medicare and Social Security, those of us with memories of earlier transitions in the South see this as part of a pattern where lifetime Democratic voters are just slower to shift their allegiances.

This is also part of the reason why the only group among whom Maloney outperformed McDonnell was Democratic voters—in Virginia the conservative Democrats of ten or 20 years ago are now Republicans; in Appalachia they’re still Democrats and while they can be won, they must be won in each race again and again.

In places like Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and throughout the South, we have slowly converted these cultural Democrats using a variety of issues (don’t let anyone tell you it was only social issues, though they were important).

Some of those issues, such as social issues, still matter greatly while others, like anti-communism and U.S.-Soviet relations, will have to be replaced with new issues like environmental and other regulations.

The biggest factor in overcoming these “cultural Democrats” though was years of focused outreach, advocacy, and education.  Moving voters from national/state ticket splitters to reliable Republicans takes time and patience, and it takes infrastructure and ongoing effort.  If Republicans want to burst the “Appalachian Bubble,” we’ll need to make the investments of time and treasure on the ground to do so.

  • We aren’t the populists/reformers.

Another big reason Republicans were so successful at converting many historically Democratic states over the past several decades is that we took advantage of the corruption that is endemic to a state with a long history of one-party rule and campaigned as populists and reformers.

Especially in an area like Appalachia, where distrust of everything from big businesses to the federal government (and often the state government, too) is less of a cyclical pattern and more of an enduring cultural fact, being the populist candidate in a race is critical.  And yet Republicans have too often nominated big-businessman-politicians or the next guy on the leadership rolls and ceded the archetypical good-old-boy populist role to the Democrat in the race.

One of the keys to GOP success in other places that have re-aligned from Democratic to Republican in the last 30-plus years was finding candidates who looked and sounded like they were more comfortable shouting up at the seat of power than they were lecturing down from it.  We don’t seem to have done this yet in many of the races we lose in Appalachia.

  • We try too hard to “nationalize” these races.

One of the great piece of inherited wisdom among D.C. political consultants is that when the political winds are at your back, you want to make every race about national issues, while when they’re in your face, you want to make every race as local as possible.

This turns out to be true most of the time, but it hurt us for years in the more rural (and slower to convert to Republican candidates) places in states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana; and I believe it is still hurting us in Appalachia.

The problem is that while the voters in these places agree with us on the issues, they have an inherent cultural resistance to being told by “outsiders” how to think and what to do.

When those “outsiders” are from Washington, DC, the problem is compounded many times.

It damages any ability GOP candidates have to run as populists and make meaningful connections as part of the community of voters they want to represent—in trying to support Republican candidates on national issues, we make them national candidates among voters whose entire worldview is rooted in a much narrower and closer sense of community.

When we look at the recent history of successful Appalachian Democrats, from Joe Manchin, to Earl Ray Tomblin, to incumbent Democratic Congressmen from Pennsylvania to North Carolina, perhaps the most important key to their success is that they have portrayed themselves as “one of us” to their constituents and take every opportunity to make arguments that are “us versus other,” frequently at the expense of their own party’s national leadership.

While making these Democrats “own” the failures and policies of their party seems like the right strategy, they have survived because they are able to turn this line of attack into another example of how rooted they are in the Appalachian communities and culture that they represent and turn their Republican opponents into creatures of “outsiders” and “Washington.”