Stateline Story

W.Va. projects a split personality

  • November 29, 2007
  • By Stateline Staff

Louis Jacobson is the editor of CongressNow, an online publication launched in 2007 that covers legislation and policy in Congress and is affiliated with Roll Cal l newspaper in Washington, D.C. Jacobson originated the "Out There" column in 2004 as a feature for Roll Cal l, where he served as deputy editor. Earlier, Jacobson spent 11 years with National Journal covering lobbying, politics and policy, and served as a contributing writer for two of its affiliates , CongressDaily and Government Executive . He also was a contributing writer to The Almanac of American Politics and has done political handicapping of state legislatures for both The Rothenberg Political Report and The Cook Political Report .

W.Va. - Viewed in isolation, the past two presidential elections would suggest that West Virginia is headed full steam into the Republican camp. After supporting every Democratic presidential nominee since Franklin Roosevelt except in the years that Republican Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan were re-elected the Mountain State pulled the lever for George W. Bush in 2000 by a six-point margin and in 2004 by 13 points.But the situation is more complex. While most observers here predict that any Democratic nominee faces an uphill climb in winning the state's five electoral votes in 2008, the Democratic Party has managed to stave off Republican advances at almost every other level of government. Currently, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, has one of the highest approval ratings in the nation and seems assured of winning a second term next year. Last year, concerted GOP efforts to oust Democratic U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan (over ethical questions) and Democratic U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (by focusing on his advanced age) came to naught. Most strikingly, not even a well-funded effort by a coal baron to oust Democratic state legislators worked, as the Democrats actually gained seats in 2006.Several factors made this possible, analysts here say. In a state with the third-highest median age in the nation, old habits and voting patterns die hard. Democratic officeholders benefit not only from incumbency but also from the perception that elections are decided in Democratic primaries. Thus, voters have little incentive to switch party registrations to Republican. GOP registration has remained flat at around 30 percent since 1996, while Democratic Party registration is 57 percent, down from 63 percent.Moreover, the Democratic Party wins support by forcefully articulating economic populism - from securing government projects to attacking free trade and globalization and by advocating government regulation. Nowhere is this truer than in mine safety: In such a small state, an event like the Sago mine disaster, which left a dozen workers dead in January 2006, touches everyone."People have a strong sense here that there should be restraints," said Rick Wilson, director of the liberal West Virginia Economic Justice Project.Most importantly, though, state and local Democrats make it hard for Republicans to outflank them. Unlike Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, who was burdened by his liberal stances on gun control and the environment, and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry four years later, West Virginia Democrats know how to position themselves to win. "Frankly, a lot of the Democrats running for office here are more like Republicans on social issues," said Democrat Marc Weintraub, a Charleston City Council member. Republicans acknowledge the challenge they face. "It's harder to run as a Republican here," said Gary Abernathy, a former executive director of the state Republican Party and now a GOP consultant. "You don't have the traditional wedge issues that you have in most other states." That said, the West Virginia GOP has made some inroads in the past decade. Bush's two victories were a major boost, as were two successful re-election bids by U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R). The GOP made small gains in the Legislature in 2002 and 2004, and the two-term mayor of Charleston is Republican Danny Jones. Most strikingly, the GOP in 2004 won its first statewide offices beyond the governorship in decades: Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin and Secretary of State Betty Ireland. (Republicans occasionally have held the West Virginia governorship, most recently from 1997 to 2001, when Cecil Underwood occupied the office.) "Before 2002, the Republican Party barely challenged legislative races," Abernathy said. "We would literally have 35 or 40 percent of the races with no Republican candidate. Some of the basics were just not happening, like candidate recruitment. That really depressed Republican turnout." So the party set a goal of getting a Republican into every legislative race. The party came close in 2002 and finally achieved its target two years later - for the first time in 50 years, Abernathy said. While it was mainly a symbolic victory, he said, "It was a wake-up call. Now our phones ring and people step up to run. It's a mindset that did not exist before 2002." Still, West Virginia Democrats foiled Republican efforts to achieve modest gains again in the Legislature in 2006. While the national Democratic tide helped, there is widespread speculation that a push to oust Democratic legislators spearheaded by Don Blankenship - the deep-pocketed chief executive of Massey Energy, a coal company with sizable holdings in the state - may have backfired and aided Democrats. In previous election cycles, Blankenship had found success. In 2004, he poured a reported $1.7 million into the state Supreme Court contest in which Benjamin ousted liberal Justice Warren McGraw. Then, a year later, Blankenship notched another victory by helping derail a Manchin effort to secure voter approval for a $5.5 billion pension bond sale. By 2006, however, Democrats were in no mood to let Blankenship's challenge go unanswered. They were led by Manchin, who some Democrats privately had groused hadn't done much to build up the state party while in office. "There was a perception that the Democratic Party had become a lazy, monolithic force and that an energized Republican base was able to defeat it, at least near the top of the ticket," said Larry Messina, who covers West Virginia politics for The Associated Press. "But the state party has taken steps to limber up and respond to some of these challenges." The Democrats ended up gaining four seats on Election Day, bolstered by what appeared to be an unusually large number of straight-ticket votes in 2006. (West Virginia is one of 17 states that allow straight-ticket voting, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.) State GOP officials acknowledge that Blankenship became a target of Democrats, although they add that they're happy to continue working with him, even though he often operates independently from the state party. "The last I spoke to him, he was very down about the last election and was wondering whether he might have hurt candidates he was supporting," said state Republican Chairman Doug McKinney, a urologist from Clarksburg. "I told him that in my opinion, we might have fared even worse absent his involvement." Manchin's popularity which soared after Sago, where he was seen as a reassuring presence has burnished his party's image. He has cheered supporters by raising teacher salaries and stiffening mine safety and rescue capabilities, while co-opting such Republican ideas as cutting taxes and privatizing worker compensation. "He's a very likable guy and a superb politician," McKinney acknowledged. "He's been very good at stealing our issues." Going into 2008, there doesn't appear to be any Republican who can beat Manchin, and the party's thin bench got thinner still when Ireland, the well-regarded secretary of state, decided against seeking another term. In other ways, though, McKinney is pleased about his party's outlook. GOP leaders have whittled down their inherited debt and largely healed old factional rifts, he said. The party is planning a nominating convention for the 2008 GOP presidential candidates, with the registration fees filling the state party coffers. The convention is scheduled for the big primary day of Feb. 5, with the results released midday hours before most polls close in a bid to draw national attention and possibly influence balloting elsewhere. West Virginia Republicans and Democrats alike agree that neither U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) nor U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has a strong shot at flipping the state blue. Only populist southerner John Edwards might be able to pull it off, analysts here say. Clinton may have one chance, though, said John Kennedy Bailey, a lawyer and Democratic activist in Charleston. If former President Bill Clinton, who remains tremendously popular in West Virginia, "would move here for a month, Hillary would be president of the United States," he said.