Just 24 years ago, West Virginia was a deep blue state. Two out of every three voters were Democrats and that was reflected time and again in elections. In the 1994 General Election, Senator Robert Byrd easily won re-election to his 7th term, collecting 69 percent of the vote against Republican Stan Klos.
Democratic Congressmen Alan Mollohan, Bob Wise and Nick Rahall each won re-election by wide margins. Democrats maintained control of the West Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates. For many Democrats, especially in southern West Virginia, the real race was the Primary. Win their own party’s nomination and they were home free in November.
However, much has changed in two-and-a-half decades. Republicans now control both chambers of the Legislature, the Governor’s Office, all three congressional seats and one of two U.S. Senate seats.
One reason for the historic shift has been the epic decline of Democratic voter registration, and the just-released figures from the Secretary of State’s Office show that trend continues.
The number of West Virginia voters who identify as Democrats has fallen to 524,964, or just under 43 percent of all registered voters. (The total number of registered voters for the May 8th Primary Election is 1,227,600.) That’s still a sizable chunk, but the erosion is persistent.
The current Democratic vote total is down from 577,977 two years ago and 613,518 in 2014. That means Democratic voter registration has dropped 14 percent in just four years.
Meanwhile, Republican Party registration continues a steady rise. 392,804 voters are registered as Republican for the upcoming Primary; that’s up nearly 18,000 from two years ago and 40,000 from 2014. Republicans now make up 32 percent of all registered voters.
Increasingly, however, West Virginia voters are shedding any party affiliation. The Secretary of State’s Office figures show 309,832 eligible voters in this election are not in either the Democratic or Republican Parties. A few are registered with third parties, but the overwhelming majority are Independent or have no party affiliation.
Independents now make up 25 percent of all voters in West Virginia; that’s up from four percent in 1994. The growth in Independents has been prompted by, among other things, the Democratic and Republican Parties opening their primaries to non-party members.
The voter registration figures pose a chicken-or-the-egg question; did party registration begin to shift as Republicans performed better in elections or did the seismic movement in party affiliation make it easier for Republicans to win?
Or those may just be concurrent events. Regardless, the numbers continue to show just how fast the Democratic Party in West Virginia has lost its edge in registered voters and in influence. The dominance of a Democratic politician such as Robert C. Byrd and his down ballot impact is now just part of the state’s history.