The West Virginia Democratic Party and many of its candidates took an old fashioned butt whuppin’ Tuesday. The results of federal and state races were a resounding rejection of the majority party, bringing to an official end the 80-plus year Democratic dominance.
But like most overnight sensations, this one was years in the making.
The first signs of change occurred in 2000. George Bush beat Al Gore in West Virginia on his way to the Presidency, becoming the first non-incumbent Republican to carry the Mountain State since Herbert Hoover. That same year, Shelley Moore Capito narrowly defeated Democrat Jim Humphreys in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District race.
Capito reeled off six more victories, while long-time 1st District Congressman Alan Mollohan was knocked out in the 2010 Democratic Primary by Michael Oliverio, who then lost to Republican David McKinley in the General Election. Tuesday, McKinley won his third consecutive term.
In 2004, Republican Brent Benjamin won a state Supreme Court seat from Democratic incumbent Warren McGraw, and then in 2012, McGraw’s brother, Darrell, was defeated by Republican Patrick Morrisey for Attorney General.
The state Democratic Party lost its best top-of-the-ticket candidate when Senator Robert Byrd died in 2010. Meanwhile, Barack Obama moved the national Democratic Party farther to the left, forcing West Virginia Democrats to run against their own kind.
NBC News exit polling in the Capito-Tennant race found 75 percent of West Virginia voters Tuesday either strongly disapprove (58%) or somewhat disapprove (17%) of the way Barack Obama is handling his job as President.
That headwind turned many Democratic candidates into tumbleweed, rolling aimlessly across the political landscape. You can’t run against your opponent and your own party and expect voters to conclude anything other than it’s a distinction without a difference.
Also, blue-voting labor unions have seen their influence decline. The United Mine Workers union has lost membership, while retirees have died off. This election cycle the labor-financed PACs spent over $2 million in state legislative races only to see Democrats lose 19 seats to Republicans in the House of Delegates and eight Democratic Senate seats flip to Republican (one Republican seat flipped to Democrat).
And now we learn that a party switch by state Senator Daniel Hall from Wyoming County gives the GOP an 18-16 advantage in the Senate.
Capito’s campaign didn’t simply ride the wave; it helped create it. The Republican’s Senate bid was a near-flawless drive that was months, if not years, in the making. Instead of relying strictly on ads, the Capito campaign also went grass roots, knocking on over 20,000 doors and making 450,000 phone calls in the final week of the campaign.
Tuesday night was not an aberration. It was a seismic shift in West Virginia’s political landscape that’s been building. The post-election question for the Democratic Party is how they keep from losing even more ground in 2016.