Election results augur sea change in W.Va. politics

It is with great pleasure that I write my first column for the Spirit of Jefferson newspaper. I would like to thank the Spirit for including me in their roster of contributors.

For those who know me, you know that, although I have run for office, I prefer to focus on issues rather than politics. Principles should trump politics but that isn’t always the case and I am not naïve in that regard. While the political process needs our constant vigilance, I believe that short term attempts at political solutions to our problems are eventually overwhelmed in the longer term by economic reality.

With all of that said, and with apologies to those with “election fatigue,” my first submissions will devote themselves to an analysis of the past political season and the ramifications of the results. They are significant. In fact, there appears to be a sea change happening in West Virginia where the Republicans gained 11 seats in the House of Delegates.

The political balance in the House of Delegates now stands at 54 Democrats and 46 Republicans. To put this into historical perspective, the population of West Virginia peaked in the early 1950s with the 1950 census reporting a population of just over 2 million. In 1952, the House of Delegates expanded from 94 members to 100, where it stands today. The Republican Party now holds more seats than at any time since 1928, the year of the last Republican majority in the House of Delegates. I suspect this trend will continue and perhaps accelerate.

As Sen. Tip O’Neill said three decades ago, all politics is local. So let’s take a closer look at two of the delegate races, one in Boone County and one closer to home in Berkeley County.

In Berkeley County, Republican Mike Folk won in the 63rd Dstrict in a hotly contested race by less than 100 votes. The 63rd borders on Jefferson County along Martinsburg Pike and Scrabble Road. The result came as a surprise to many, but not to me. For the three counties of Morgan, Berkeley and Jefferson, the Delegate count is seven Republicans and three Democrats. With regard to the entire Eastern Panhandle, the count is nine Republicans and four Democrats.

Another result that was not surprising to me: Patrick Morrisey’s historic win for the attorney general’s office. Morrisey, who lives in Jefferson County, is the first resident of the Eastern Panhandle ever to hold statewide office. However, his showing among voters in other parts of the state was surprising and indicative of a profound change in voting patterns. Also surprising were gains in the legislature in Kanawha County, where Charleston is.

There were many surprising results in this election, but to me the biggest surprise was Joshua Nelson who has become the first Republican to be elected state delegate in the history of Boone County.

Delegate-elect Nelson is a coal miner. To me, this defines the sea change in our state. The crosscurrents are many, and with regard to the coal miners of Boone County, I can relate. Full disclosure: my grandfather was a coal miner and I am the first member of my family ever to register Republican. The times they are a-changing indeed.

On the state level, party politics involve different dynamics than on the national level and while economic principles may be universal, economic issues are local. On the surface, it would appear that the catalyst for the change in West Virginia is coal.

However, the Eastern Panhandle is not a coal producer. Therefore, and please excuse the turn of phrase, I believe that we need to look under the surface to see what is really at work. In my opinion what is happening in West Virginia is part of a growing trend nationally — that state level elections are reflecting a desire on the part of voters to push back against what many feel is overreach by the federal government. Voters seem to be directing more attention toward their respective state governments in order to have a greater say in local issues. This is a subject that I intend to come back to in the future and while two election cycles may not a trend make, it is something to watch for.

— Elliot Simon lives on the mountain outside of Harpers Ferry and has been a candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates.

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