CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In the 2014 election, Democrats lost control of both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature, losing eight seats in the state Senate and 17 seats in the House of Delegates. Two years later, the party lost four more Senate seats yet gained a seat in the House of Delegates.
While Democrats won the gubernatorial race in 2016 with candidate Jim Justice, he left the party in August 2017 — seven months after his inauguration — after announcing his plan at a rally for President Donald Trump in Huntington. Treasurer John Perdue is the only Democrat that is part of the executive branch.
“The message that I got was loud and clear,” West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore said of the past two election cycles. “Our voters didn’t believe in what we were saying. They still believed I think in our values and the issues, but for some reason, we weren’t getting that across to them.”
The leading public face of the state party, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, faces a challenging general election if he wins the party’s nomination; Cook’s Political Report says this year’s Senate election in West Virginia is a “toss-up,” and Sabato’s Crystal Ball labels the race as “leans Democrat.” Both organizations also say the three congressional districts are likely to go Republican.
Despite this, Biafore said she feels confident the Democrats can not only win control of the state Legislature, but also win the four federal office races.
“We’re going to work to win them all,” she said. “I was very pleased we found the caliber of candidates that we did.”
State Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, is one of those candidates; he is running for the 3rd Congressional District seat, which is currently being held by U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is vying to be the Republican nominee in the U.S. Senate election.
Ojeda said Democratic leadership failed to connect with people over the last decade.
“They do very little for anybody,” he said. “It got to the point where if you asked them for something, you had to first give your undying support to get anything.”
According to Ojeda, this is what turned West Virginians off from Democrats in 2016, including the party’s nominee for president, Hillary Clinton. Ojeda added when voters saw President Donald Trump, they connected with him and his platform. This includes Ojeda, who voted for the president.
“Donald Trump was saying all kinds of crazy things, but the Republicans didn’t even like Donald Trump,” he said. “When it came down to it, he was the one that started about coal mining and helping coal miners. Nobody else did that.”
“In the past year, it has been a train wreck. Successful leaders surround themselves with intelligent people. It has not happened,” Ojeda said of the Trump administration.
Since Republicans have taken control in Washington, D.C., it has been rocky. Federal lawmakers failed to act on former President Barack Obama’s health care law, although ended 2017 with the passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. In special elections, while Republicans have won races, but in smaller margins compared to Trump’s wins in the previous presidential election.
Scott Crichlow, an associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, said this is the result of the president’s sluggish national approval rating and state politics.
“Where it becomes a bigger deal tied to West Virginia is when you look at the state level reasons, and probably the best comparative case is Oklahoma,” he said. “A very Republican state where you’ve seen a number of state legislative races go to Democrats for similar reasons it appears to what we’ve seen in West Virginia, such as issues tied to the local economy and teacher strikes.”
Teacher strikes have happened in Republican-controlled states such as Arizona and Kentucky. The root of these movements are in West Virginia, where teachers and school service personnel held a nine-walkout earlier this year regarding stagnant salaries and increasing insurance costs. The action ended with a 5 percent pay raise for all public employees and the creation of a task force to address the Public Employees Insurance Agency, the state’s public employee insurance program.
Thousands of people protested at the Capitol demanding action from the Republican-led Legislature and Justice. Democrats, such as Ojeda, seized the opportunity to connect with the movement, gaining popularity in the process.
“They were thinking we might get 13, 14 counties,” Ojeda said. “Next thing you know, it’s 55 strong.”
Biafore said a byproduct of the work stoppage has been an increased interest in politics, which she noted as benefitting the Democratic Party. She described an April event in Brooke County, in which she noticed an increased attendance
“They had nice crowds, but the crowds I saw were overwhelming,” she said. “We had 250 people come to that event. In the middle of a Saturday afternoon, sun shining for the first time in a long time, and you walk into with 250 people and see a lot of faces you don’t know, it tells me something is going on.”
Ojeda said he is working to carry the energy into the November general election. A rally for his campaign was held last week in Charleston, which is not part of the 3rd Congressional District. Candidates in local, state and federal races were among those present at the Four Points by Sheraton.
“If you don’t reach out to people all over the state, we won’t take it (the Legislature) back,” he said. “And if we don’t take it back, guess what happens next legislative session? Teachers, guess where you’re going to be? Five percent was not enough. PEIA is not being truly addressed.”
Ojeda also stumped for William Ihlenfeld on stage. Ihlenfeld, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, is running against state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. Both men are unopposed in Tuesday’s primary election.
“It became clear to me that Democrats were losing touch with who it was that they were serving,” Ihlenfeld said. “They’ve realized that they weren’t paying attention to their constituents. At the end of the day, that’s what you have to do.”
Crichlow said he has doubts about Democrats being successful in this year’s election. He said it is unclear how the education work stoppage will affect voter turnout — which is traditionally low between presidential elections — and if Democrats can sell a unified message.
“It’s a really varied set of people all across the state in a way that is not so true on the Republican side of things,” he said.
Crichlow also noted the factor of incumbency; Reps. David McKinley and Alex Mooney are running for re-election, making it more challenging for Democrats to make the 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts blue.
Biafore said the Republicans have been better at selling themselves, as party members have united around defeating Obama and Clinton.
“They just tore our candidates apart,” she said. “Even though Barack Obama didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to West Virginia, they still associated our candidates with him.”
She also said Obama was not a good president for West Virginia.
“We would talk to the administration about EPA violations and regulations,” she said. “They were accusing us of having just dirty air, dirty coal, dirty water, dirty everything, and they were going to regulate us, even though we were close to where we should have been anyway. It just gave a bad message that Barack Obama was out to kill coal.”
Biafore said following the election in November, she wants to launch a grassroots campaign to inform people about the Democratic platform in an attempt to earn the public’s support. She described efforts under former national party chairman Howard Dean to support races through the leadership of state parties.
“He said no more are we going to put our money into candidates at the top of the ticket,” she said. “We’re going to go to these states, we’re going to allow people to hire them in the field and put people on the ground. When that happened, we were winning. Once that program went away, states started losing.”
Biafore said connecting with people is what caused the education work stoppage to be successful, adding the party can do the same to win votes in future election cycles.
“They finally got a taste of Republicans being in charge in Washington, and it’s now coming down to West Virginia’s level. And it’s like gridlock,” she said.