CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The leadership in the West Virginia House of Delegates is in play for the first time since the 1930s.
That’s how long Democrats have held the majority in the 100-member House. But two years ago the Republicans surprised most state political observers by turning around 11 seats to cut the Democratic margin to 54-46. Since then the Republicans picked up a defection leaving the margin heading into the 2014 election cycle at 53-47.
The Republicans are so close to the majority they can taste it and they are sporting a number of candidates with impressive credentials in Tuesday’s primary.
West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said these aren’t just candidates to fill the ballots but these are top-flight candidates.
“It was so important this year for Republicans to make sure we had folks who were ready to govern,” Lucas said. “We’re fully prepared to be in leadership positions in both the House and state Senate this year.”
Longtime Kanawha County Vera McCormick has watched the ballots for years and she can’t remember a time when the Republican candidates have sported the credentials this group does.
“We have doctors, pharmacists—there is a good slate this year,” McCormick said.
Republicans are getting a jump start on the general election. There are already 12 seats virtually guaranteed to be filled by Republicans because are no Democrats in those races. That number could be as high as 15 virtually guaranteed spots heading into the fall vote. On the other hand, Republicans didn’t let any Democrat-held seat go unopposed.
What will it take for Democrats to maintain control or for Republicans to gain the four-seats they need to wrest control of the House away from the Dems?
West Virginia Wesleyan Political Science Professor Robert Rupp said the determining factor between whether Democrats hold on to the House or lose it to the GOP could come down to a race or two either way.
“It was eight years before Jerry West was even born the Democrats took over the state legislature so in that case we’ve got to look at all of these individuals races because that could be the main story coming out of this, a big transition,” Rupp said.
If Republicans are going to gain the seats necessary to gain the majority all Republican incumbents would have to win, the GOP would have to maintain the two seats it holds in District 10 in Wood County where Republicans John Ellem and Tom Azinger decided not to run again and they would also have to keep the seat currently held by Del. Ryan Ferns in Ohio County.
There are some areas where the GOP could pick up some seats currently held by Democrats where the incumbents decided not to seek reelection. Those include Del. Mary Poling in Barbour County, Del. Brady Paxton in Putnam County and Del. Kevin Craig in Cabell County. Kanawha County Delegate Doug Skaff is running for state Senate.
In order for Democrats to maintain the House majority its members would need to hold on to their seats and pick up some victories like the aforementioned two seats in Wood County, maintain the seats they’ve held for years in Barbour, Putnam and Cabell counties and knock off some Republican delegates in single delegate districts who are running for reelection for the very first time.
West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio doesn’t believe the anti-Obama factor that was around in 2012 will work this time for Republican candidates.
“While I think that will be used again and they’ll attempt to use it, I really don’t think that folks believe that a House of Delegate member who will probably never meet the president or know him whatsoever would have any tie at all to him and they will still vote for their local guy,” Puccio said.
But Republicans appear enthused. Case in point, in the 36th district in eastern Kanawha County, which has been a Democratic stronghold for years, each party will nominate three candidates to the general election Tuesday night. There are four Democrats running for those three seats and seven Republican candidates seeking those three nominations.
In MetroNews Talkline hosts Hoppy Kercheval’s January 9, 2013 column some numbers were cited that may tell us more about this turnaround.
“The number of Democratic votes for House of Delegates candidates is trending downward. It reached 923,000 in 2004, dropped slightly in 2008, then plummeted to 577,000 in the last election. Meanwhile, the number of votes cast for Republican House members has been generally trending upward. Republican House candidates received 36,000 more votes in 2012 than 2008, while Democratic House candidates received 324,000 fewer votes.”
Charleston Mayor Danny Jones said he’s been reminded time and time again politics is a funny game with no guarantees–but he believes Republicans will win control of the House of Delegates in November.
“I think the Republicans are much more motivated and the Democrats are somewhat downtrodden and feel like they don’t have anywhere to go or anybody to vote for and a bunch of these Republicans are going unchallenged,” Jones said. “There could be a few Democrats recapture seats but I think a lot more Republicans will.”