MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — For Republicans in much of West Virginia, Tuesday night probably went about as well as can be expected.
Although top-billed Patrick Morrisey couldn’t quite topple the unyielding Joe Manchin, the GOP retained control of the State Senate, the House of Delegates, saw two well known conservatives elected to the State Supreme Court of Appeals, effectively saw two GOP-backed Constitutional amendments passed, and won easily in all three Congressional districts — that last part particularly impressive considering the national notoriety bestowed on the fiery Richard Ojeda.
The night wasn’t without some local-level hiccups though. Leaders in both the House and Senate lost their bids for re-election, and the overall size of the Republican advantage in the House and Senate shrunk — likely a result of the only place in West Virginia where a blue wave really did hit.
Monongalia and Marion counties, overwhelmingly represented by House Districts 50 and 51, have eight seats between the two of them in the House of Delegates.
Coincidentally, eight Democrats won those eight seats.
“Even when the state looks like a sea of red, Marion County is, in many ways, a blueberry in a bowl of tomato soup,” said Dr. Greg Noone, a political science professor and Director of the National Security Intelligence Program at Fairmont State University. “It’s kind of not surprising there.”
Yet Marion County was actually less Democratic than it’s neighbor to the north. Voters in Monongalia County overwhelming rejected Amendment One (62 to 38 percent), supported Kendra Fershee over incumbent David McKinley (55 to 45 percent, when he essentially won everywhere else), and kicked two Republican incumbents out of office.
Noone was surprised by Monongalia County. Even with the progressive nature that can often surround large college campuses and permeate throughout college towns like Morgantown, Monongalia County hasn’t been afraid to send Republicans to statewide positions in the last two decades. Just four years ago, the five-Delegate 51st district was comprised of four Republicans and just one Democrat — the steadfast Barbara Evans Fleischauer, now winner of 10 House races in 11 tries.
“The fact that Mon went overwhelmingly Democratic and sent all Democrats to Charleston is a little bit more surprising in that Mon usually has a good mix of Democrats and Republicans heading off to Charleston,” he said.
It was also Monongalia County that powered the election of incumbent Democrat Bob Beach — who was facing a stiff challenge from Democrat-turned-Republican Mike Olvierio, a former four-term Democratic State Senator from District 13 who was just 1,440 votes away from being West Virginia’s first district Congressman in 2010.
26 precincts in Monongalia County and 58 precincts in Marion County make up Senate District 13. Even in a year where Beach had some built-in structural advantages, Oliverio offered a formidable threat to his re-election bid. But in Monongalia County, where Beach won 56.8 percent of the vote, those aforementioned ‘built-in advantages’ sprung to his aid.
“I definitely think that 55 United in Monongalia County had an influence on the election,” AFT-Monongalia President Sam Brunett said. “We basically endorsed the same people who stood by us through the strike. They attended our meetings, and we canvassed for them. We went to their rallies, and they came to our rallies.”
The Beach campaign is, primarily, where Brunett, a Marion County resident who teaches in Monongalia County, focused his energy.
“You see the same type of teacher influence within the election here in Marion County,” Brunett added. “It was something that filtered through the I-79 corridor there.”
Beach lost Marion County, but he did enough to make sure he didn’t lose the significant vote margin he padded in his home county.
“Two things were going to impact the outcome of this race for me,” Beach said following his win Tuesday night. “That would be women and 55 Strong — those teachers and service personnel. Tonight proved that they were out there in force.”
Beach will re-join Marion County native and Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, pieces of what’s left of West Virginia’s long history of Democratic politics.
Some, though, are hoping to begin writing new chapters. Enter Evan Hansen, Danielle Walker, and Michael Angelucci.
“I think people are frustrated with politicians who bicker and fight and retreat to their party lines and don’t find a way to actually take care of some of the basic needs of people,” said Evan Hansen, who finished second in the voting in Monongalia County.
Hansen, a climate scientist, narrowly lost in Monongalia County’s free-for-all election in 2016, finishing just shy of fellow Democrat Rodney Pyles. Most assumed, even if Democrats could steal one seat from Republicans in Monongalia County and end up with four seats, that it might result in cannibalizing one of their three incumbents.
“It’s usually a bit of every-man-for-himself,” Noone said. “Yeah, I’m part of this team, part of this team. But, still, at the end of the day, every man for himself. If they continue to work and act like that, they can bring home some benefits for the region.”
Yet Noone saw first-hand Marion County’s Democrats offering themselves up as a sort of ticket — a three-for-the-price-of-one deal.
And in Monongalia County, that mentality paid off. Incumbents Barbara Evans Fleischauer, John Williams, and Rodney Pyles managed to finish first, third, and fifth respectively — nobody was cannabilized by a member of their own party.
“We’re a strong delegation,” Fleischauer, who has now won 10 of 11 House races, said Wednesday. “And we have to work together, and we worked together on the campaign. Technically speaking, we ran against each other. Except that we did work together, and that’s what we’ll need to do in the Legislature so we can make things happen for our county.”
Fellow newcomer Danielle Walker, a single mother from humble beginnings, dubbed Monongalia County’s Democratic team ‘the fab five’ during the campaign — driving that point home during a firey speech in front of the United Mineworkers of America last month.
“The fab five of District 51 worked together,” she said. “We canvassed together, we phone banked together, we did everything together.”
“Very surprised that we got all five,” Rodney Pyles added. “Especially happy for myself that I was able to win one of those five seats.”
Williams, one of the youngest members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates, was unsuccessful in his first run in 2014. Four years later, he’s preparing to start his second term knowing full well that West Virginia’s ‘fab five’ are expected to produce.
“In 2014, this whole district almost went all red,” he said. “I think that’s really illustrating that people are tired of the status quo in politics.”
Turnout in Monongalia County was a shade less than 45 percent, the highest mid-term voter turnout since 2006 — coincidentally a strong Democratic year and the last time the national Democratic Party won control of the House of Representatives when it was GOP-controlled.
And, yet, despite the terrific Democratic turnout that spurned these candidates to sweeping victories at home, Monongalia and Marion counties are precisely where those victories stop. Combined, the Monongalia County ‘fab five’ join Marion County incumbent stalwarts Mike Caputo and Linda Longstreth, and Delegate-elect Angelucci, a Farmington paramedic, in making up the single biggest portion of a minority party.
“I know there has been some conversation in years past that Marion County’s Democratic caucus had been kind of left behind and given short shrift a little bit,” Noone said. “But you can’t ignore Mon County. If the two work together and stick together, I think it can be to their advantage.”
The eight Democrats will make up nearly 20 percent of their party’s House caucus in Charleston. That leaves just 33 other Democrats combined among 53 other West Virginia counties — just 33 Democratic delegates among the state’s other 1.65 million people in a state where dynastic Democratic politics was once the only game in town.
Noone believes this group of eight, if they stick together, has the potential to be a powerful voting bloc in Charleston. He also noted the impressive influence of West Virginia’s burgeoning labor movement, a boon from the teacher’s trike.
But, ever the political analyst, Noone noted a word of caution.
“The biggest thing I was surprised at was Harrison County,” he said. “Harrison County is going redder and redder. So much so that they threw out a Democratic lawmaker who was himself a teacher. The idea that the 55 Strong or that the ‘Remember in November’ worked everywhere is incorrect. I think it had some impact in Mon and Marion, but it appears to not only have had any impact, but complete amnesia in Harrison County.”