Saturday night was a defining moment for West Virginia’s Democratic Party.
Yes, all 1,700 Democrats (a record crowd) at the Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Charleston already knew that Senator Jay Rockefeller was retiring. Sending him off with hosannas and platitudes—including those delivered by Vice President Joe Biden—was appropriate.
But seeing the aging Rockefeller–he’s 76–on stage with all his family, supporting himself with a cane, was also a stark reminder that the long-dominant Democratic Party in West Virginia is losing another substantial vote getter.
Starting in the late 1950’s, the state Democratic Party could always count on three significant advantages over Republicans: voter registration, Robert Byrd, Jennings Randolph or Jay Rockefeller as ticket-leaders in U.S. Senate races, and support for the Democratic Presidential nominee.
The down ballot benefits for Democrats have been consequential, as the party dominated local and regional races. However, the state has undergone a significant transition in recent years.
The first evidence was the state’s choice of George Bush over Al Gore in 2000. West Virginia has gone red in every Presidential race since.
That was followed by the death of Senator Byrd and now the retirement of Rockefeller. Both men won every election (except Rockefeller’s first run for Governor in 1972), often by virtual acclamation with only token opposition. Still, having Byrd and Rockefeller on the ballot helped bring out Democratic voters, providing a decided advantage to down ballot Democrats.
Also, Democrats no longer enjoy voter registration dominance. Yes, half of all registered voters are still Democrats, but that’s down from 65 percent in 1994. Meanwhile, the state has seen a rise in Independent voters from just four percent in 1994 to nearly 19 percent today. Republican registration has dropped slightly, but is still hovering just below 30 percent.
In many parts of the state, the days of Democrats signing up to run, putting out a few signs and waiting patiently for the predictable results on Election Day, are history.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party has had trouble uniting under the Big Tent because of the unpopularity of President Obama in West Virginia. Leading political figures like Senator Joe Manchin, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Congressman Nick Rahall struggle almost daily with a Kabuki dance where they support the Party, but distance themselves from the President and some of his key policies.
Saturday night, the Democrats were in a festive mood as they embraced the man simply called “Jay” by everyone. He has been a political pillar for the Democratic Party for nearly a half-century.
True, Senator Joe Manchin has the energy and political skills to fill much of the party’s void, but it’s evident that an era of unrivaled Democratic dominance in West Virginia is ending.