West Virginia politics have been dominated by the Democratic Party for as long as anyone can remember.
Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since 1930. In the 1932 election, West Virginia was one of 42 states that propelled Democrat Franklin Roosevelt to a landslide victory over Republican Herbert Hoover.
What followed were decades of one-party supremacy in the Mountain State. Richard Brisbin writes in his book “West Virginia Politics and Government,” that between 1932 and 2004, of the 139 terms for statewide office up for election, all but ten were filled by Democrats. (Three of the ten Republican terms were filled by Arch Moore.)
The political hegemony was perpetuated through a significant advantage in voter registration. With twice as many Democrats as Republicans, many elections were decided in the Democratic Primary. Fight through the Primary, then just show up in November.
However, the majority party is steadily losing its numbers advantage.
In 1994, 65 percent of all West Virginia voters were registered Democrats. Ten years later, that had slipped to 58 percent, then 52 percent in 2012. And now, the West Virginia Republican Party, using figures from the Secretary of State’s Office, says Democratic Party registration has fallen below 50 percent (albeit only by a fraction) to 49.9 percent.
That’s tantamount to a rounding error but it’s symbolic, especially for a feisty Republican Party. “This is a really historic day for our state and our party,” said GOP chair Conrad Lucas on Talkline Tuesday.
The Democratic Party quickly pointed out that it still has a significant numeric advantage: 612,288 registered Democrats compared with 353,106 Republicans. Additionally, Democrats have the registration advantage in 43 of the state’s 55 counties, including Kanawha, the state’s largest. Also, Republican Party registration has held steady for the last 20 years at about 30 percent.
The real growth has been in independent voters. In 1994, just 38,650 registered voters, or four percent, had no party affiliation. Today 233,075 state voters, or 19 percent, are independent.
The increase in independent voters can be attributed to the two major parties opening their primaries to non-party voters, as well as the decline of the influence of the party system. Today politicians are far more likely to stress their personal qualifications rather than espouse party platform positions.
Also, nationally the Democratic Party has shifted farther to the left under Barack Obama, making it less suitable for conservative Democrats in the Mountain State.
Still, party registration matters. While Democratic Party leaders are down-playing the impact of the new numbers, countering that independents will one day overtake Republicans in voter registration, there is reason for concern among the ranks. Dropping from 65 percent to 50 percent in twenty years is not a blip, it’s a trend.
This isn’t your grandfather’s Democratic Party anymore.