West Virginia’s Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and Democratic state delegate Stephen Skinner haven’t met in an election and possibly never will. One is in the executive branch of government; the other is in the legislative. One holds high office; the other is a freshman backbencher in the state’s lowest elective body. Despite these asymmetries, Morrisey and Skinner seem inexorably drawn to one another in a conflict that’s important because the two newcomers to elective office may represent the next evolutionary phase of party politics in West Virginia.
Morrisey’s electoral victory in a state long dominated by Democrats is not what makes him noteworthy. Republicans Arch Moore and Cecil Underwood won four gubernatorial elections between them and enjoyed successful terms of office — at least if one overlooks Moore’s felony conviction, which came after leaving office. But they, like Moore’s daughter, congresswoman and Senate candidate Shelley Moore Capito, were basically non-ideological, “chamber of commerce” Republicans and their demeanor suited this generally non-ideological state.
Meanwhile Republicans, such as John Raese, who tried to be ideological weren’t convincing. Like most West Virginia politicians, Raese seemed more motivated by how he would divide the economic pie than by ideology. Never would he let free-market principles or concerns about government picking winners and losers interfere with a policy or tax favor that benefitted the coal industry.
Morrisey, however, seems a true ideologue. He ran against the petty pandering of former Attorney General Darrell McGraw and has dutifully implemented measures to return court awards to the state’s General Fund and to formalize the method by which the AG’s office selects outside counsel. But, Morrisey also gutted the state’s consumer protection division and has a penchant for partisan posturing – he wrote to President Obama to demand a “more reasonable” Environmental Protection Agency administrator, penned harassing letters to the state’s two medical clinics that perform abortions and seemed to take perverse delight in the prospect of the Affordable Care Act becoming “a train wreck.”
Rather than cheering giddily for the ACA’s failure, a more astute and responsible politician who opposed the law would position himself as working reluctantly but responsibly to make the best of it for West Virginians. Then he could take credit whether the ACA succeeds or fails. But, like the class cutup, Morrisey can’t resist playing to his friends even when official responsibility and political self-interest dictate otherwise.
Also new to West Virginia is Morrisey’s soft money, slash-and-burn political style. Morrisey sees himself as a soldier in the army of movement conservatism nationally. His campaign for attorney general was the beneficiary of $2 million in soft money expenditures by out-of-state political action committees that don’t disclose their donors. And, before leaving the organization to launch his campaign for attorney general, Morrisey created and funded the Eastern Panhandle Freedom Fund, which shamefully paid for ads that implied Democratic candidates were responsible for tax hikes and fee increases that were enacted when they weren’t even in office. West Virginia is no stranger to electoral shenanigans, but our culture of petty vote-buying and nepotism is mere juvenile delinquency compared to the swift-boating, big-money politics Morrisey represents.
It’s also an approach against which West Virginia Democrats are often defenseless. The reasons are partly financial, but the greater challenge is that West Virginia Democrats lack an identity and message. Since the ascent of Joe Manchin, Democrats have tacked to the right to the point that their economic policy now consists of cutting corporate taxes and subsidizing the coal industry – the same as Republicans.
Lost almost entirely is the progressive narrative for generating prosperity. From the Governor on down, Democrats sound like Republicans, but aren’t as convincing, which is why their majorities are evaporating.
It’s also why Skinner is important to the party. He is an unambiguous liberal who, unlike most Democrats, runs on a progressive platform and knows his party must as well. In recent years, Democrats have preserved the best elements of West Virginia’s progressive heritage – abolition of the death penalty, support for good wages, assistance to children and families, commitment to public schools and acceptance of women’s right to choose – not by championing the benefits of those policies, but by using legislative majorities to bottle up Republican attempts to reverse them. In this way, Democrats avoid the need to defend policies they fear are unpopular. But, procedural victories are inherently feeble. Unless nourished by public advocacy and support they will, like the Democratic majority, evaporate. Skinner understands this. At the same time, he regularly calls attention to Morrisey’s posturing and overreaching.
From his high position, Morrisey might liken skirmishes with Skinner to being mugged by a gerbil. But, gerbils have teeth. Thus, when Morrisey tried to burnish his conservative credentials by issuing his highly publicized and legally pointless letter to the state’s two abortion clinics demanding they describe the steps they take to comply with state laws (a demand the clinics sensibly ignored), the gerbil responded by issuing a letter to 30-some “pregnancy crisis centers,” which, under the guise of providing women with counseling and support, actually exist to discourage abortions, often by mangling medical facts and exaggerating risks associated with the procedure.
Skinner’s letter was as much a political stunt as Morrisey’s, but it was inspired because the positive response it elicited showed Democrats that it’s possible to take a progressive stand on an issue as fraught as abortion and win. That will be a valuable lesson if Republicans embrace Morrisey’s ideological and electoral extremism.
— Sean O’Leary can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column may also be seen at www.the-state-of-my-state.com.