At least two major national newspapers have published articles in recent months indicating that the Democratic Party in our state is on the verge of collapse and that West Virginia will turn solidly Republican over the next few election cycles.
To borrow from Mark Twain, reports of the West Virginia Democratic Party’s death are greatly exaggerated.
It’s true that Barack Obama’s approval rating is lower here than almost anywhere else in the country, as well as the fact that it’s been nearly twenty years since a Democratic nominee for president has won the state’s electoral votes (Bill Clinton in 1996). But to focus singularly on presidential politics is a failure to understand the complex partisan identification of many Mountain State residents.
Democrats currently hold two-thirds of all elected positions in West Virginia. This includes control of both chambers of the legislature, eight out of eleven statewide offices and three-fifths of the congressional delegation. Governor Earl Ray Tomblin has one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country. Democrats hold a voter registration advantage of 54 to 29 percent over Republicans, one of only five states in the country with more than a 50 percent Democratic majority. This is hardly the picture of a reliably Red State.
The West Virginia Republican Party has tried unsuccessfully to project President Obama’s low approval rating onto other Democratic candidates down ballot. Between 2010 and 2012, the GOP compulsively repeated the line that a vote for any local Democratic candidate was a vote for Barack Obama. The strategy failed miserably, and it has left the party without any kind of substantive or constructive core message.
The problem for West Virginia Republicans is that Barack Obama will never again appear on any ballot, and assuming Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee in 2016 (a safe bet), it will be much more difficult to demonize her in the same way. Clinton’s approval rating in the state has historically been much higher than Obama’s.
The GOP has also experienced major structural disadvantages for years, and there’s little indication that the situation is improving. The party has suffered from poor leadership with frequently rotating chairmen and a propensity for infighting. Meanwhile, the state Democratic Party consistently raises more funds than the GOP and has a much deeper bench of young local officials and candidates. Heavy outside spending by disgraced Republican coal magnate Don Blankenship also backfired during the past decade and actually left the GOP in a worse position.
As a result, Democrats continue to have greater success with candidate recruitment. The federal races this year are a perfect example. Democrat State Auditor Glen Gainer who has won statewide campaigns numerous times is a serious challenge to Congressman David McKinley in the first district. Former Democratic state party chairman Nick Casey who is treasurer of the American Bar Association and well respected in state and national circles is beginning to look like a heavy favorite in the second district; Republicans have so far failed to coalesce around anyone in a weak field of primary candidates. And in the third district, Republicans have resorted to recruiting a party switcher in State Senator Evan Jenkins to challenge Congressman Nick Rahall, hardly a ringing endorsement of their existing bench of potential talent. Admittedly, Rahall has a serious race on his hands, but voters view party switchers with particular suspicion and can sniff out political opportunism from a mile away.
If West Virginia Republicans have had a bright spot in the past decade, it has been Congresswoman Shelly Moore Capito who has breezed to reelection every two years and is running for U.S. Senate in 2014. But the problem with having only one star in the constellation is that the rest of the party often suffers. There’s no indication that Capito has even the shortest coattails or whether down ballot Republicans have ever benefited from her success. Furthermore, her role in the unpopular government shutdown in 2013 has left questions about her vulnerability in the upcoming election.
Meanwhile, Democrats have recruited Secretary of State Natalie Tennant to run against Capito for Senate, which will no doubt be the premier race in West Virginia in 2014. Tennant is already familiar to voters in parts of the state where Capito has never appeared on a ballot, and she remains a popular figure due to her time as a television newscaster and her well known role as the first ever female Mountaineer mascot at West Virginia University. Along with Rahall, Casey and Gainer, Tennant has promised to help lead a truly coordinated statewide campaign that will bolster Democratic candidates up and down the ballot.
Democrats also head into 2014 with energetic leadership in the legislature in the form of Senate President Jeff Kessler and new House Speaker Tim Miley. Under Democratic control, West Virginia boasts some of the strongest job growth in the entire country and was one of the only states to remain in the black during the economic crisis over the past five years. Furthermore, the Affordable Care Act is already delivering more benefits to West Virginia than almost any other state in the country due to Governor Tomblin’s decision to expand Medicaid eligibility. The state will receive $5.11 in federal funds for every $1 spent, which makes the issue an ineffective talking point for Republican candidates looking to invoke Obama’s name.
Of course, the political landscape can unexpectedly shift as a result of major news events such as the chemical leak in the Kanawha Valley. It’s probably too soon to fully understand the political fallout of the incident that left 300,000 people without access to clean tap water for a week. It’s no secret that both parties have fostered close relationships with industry groups in the state over the years, so perhaps there will be no real impact on the November elections. However, it also seems counterintuitive to suggest that voters will turn to Republicans to craft regulations to prevent future chemical spills. In the midst of an environmental crisis, the GOP is having a difficult time retracting its longstanding position that clean water regulations are unnecessary and burdensome. For years, Republicans have wielded catchy libertarian talking points that are only effective until a company named Freedom Industries releases 7,500 gallons of toxins into the water that your kids drink.
Despite all of these variables, one thing is certain. There will be significant national attention on West Virginia in 2014 as political observers try to determine the future partisan makeup of the state. But for anyone who truly understands the political dynamics, they should not be surprised when the predicted Republican tidal wave fails to materialize this year.
— Rod Snyder is President Emeritus of the Young Democrats of America and serves on the Jefferson County Democratic Executive Committee