West Virginia GOP flexes its muscle while Democrats chart a course back

As the dust settles on West Virginia’s election, Republicans are already planning how to wield their unprecedented power while Democrats are trying to map a return from the political wilderness.

This is uncharted territory in West Virginia, where Democrats were dominant for most of a century.

Recent GOP leanings tilted all the way toward dominance on Election Night.

Republican incumbents in Congress swept to big victories. Republicans picked up the one remaining executive office in Democratic hands, the Treasurer’s Office that had been held by John Perdue since 1997.

And Republicans racked up supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

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Democrats are doing a lot of soul searching.

“We really have a lot of work to do,” said Azeem Khan, an 18-year-old Charleston resident who spent big chunks of the last few years hanging out at the Legislature and supporting Democratic candidates.

“West Virginia is a better state with a strong Democratic Party. I believe that our vision is the best for the future of the state, but it is a fact that other than Senator Manchin in 2018, Republicans have been beating us.”

The long GOP march

That is a recent and dramatic development.

In 2010, a decade ago, West Virginia’s congressional delegation was anchored by Senator Robert C. Byrd, a Democrat, along with fellow Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller, and congressmen Alan Mollohan and Nick Joe Rahall. The only Republican was Shelley Moore Capito, who was then in Congress and now in the Senate.

Manchin was the governor, and the rest of the executive offices were filled by Democrats. The Senate President and the House Speaker were Democrats.

Republicans were where Democrats are now: Lonely.

In the 34-member state Senate, Donna Boley was the only Republican in 1991 and 1992.

Democrats peaked at 91 of the state’s 100 delegates twice, in the 1965-1966 and 1977-78 terms.

The flip to Republican dominance came gradually and then suddenly.

Shelley Moore Capito

Speaking on MetroNews “Talkline” this week, Capito referenced the year 2000, when she was elected to a congressional seat held by Democrats for years and when George W. Bush made an electoral map decision to campaign here that paid off with five electoral votes.

The state’s vote had gone to Democrat Bill Clinton the two presidential election cycles prior to that and to Democrat Michael Dukakis in 1988 against Bush’s father.

“It’s been a two-decade mission,” Capito said.

Republicans and Democrats alike say that sped up under President Obama, when national Democratic politics grew more intensely focused on climate change while the West Virginia economy remained dependent on coal and gas.

In 2012, felon Keith Judd took 41 percent of West Virginia’s presidential primary vote against Obama. “Simply put, West Virginia does not like Obama,” concluded The Washington Post.

Born-and-raised West Virginia Democrats held on for a time through their own name recognition, community roots and a different message. But over time, the result was cognitive dissonance.

“The Democratic Party kind of tore itself apart during those years,” said Marshall University political science professor Marybeth Beller, recalling that state Democrats were publicly at odds with Obama.

“That doesn’t translate to an easy message for the voters,” she said. “I don’t think that pendulum is going to swing until the Democrats decide what their message is.”

Meanwhile, Beller said, “The Republican Party in West Virginia is unified. It has a message. Its leaders are behind that message and they were very very successful.”

In 2014, Republicans captured both houses of the Legislature and promptly used their majorities to make West Virginia a right-to-work state.

In 2017, businessman Jim Justice was elected governor as a Democrat but switched parties within six months, saying the Democrats had left him behind.

And all that peaked with this election.

“I think it was a Republican rout,” Beller said.

Majority GOP mandate

Gov. Jim Justice

Governor Justice, also speaking on “Talkline” this week, spoke in terms of a mandate. Consolidated power can help West Virginia focus on common goals such as greater broadband connectivity, he said. But he also spoke ambitiously of eliminating the state income tax, which produces almost half of the money for the General Fund.

“I wanted to get something done in West Virginia, and I do think now there is a terrific opportunity, a terrific opportunity for us as Republicans to really move this ball. With that, I think we should move it in a way that’s good for all West Virginians,” Justice said.

Roger Hanshaw

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw also talked about converting a supermajority into policy goals, speaking broadly about a real look at the shape of West Virginia government, including taxation and the fundamental structure of state and county government.

Hanshaw specifically spoke of changes to equipment and inventory taxes — longstanding areas of focus by Republicans who believe the taxes hamper business investment. The Constitution restricts any quick change to the taxes, though.

“This majority we hope will make it easier for us to advance some of the things that we know need to be done,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay.

With so much power, it’s politically important for those GOP majorities to demonstrate they’re accomplishing specific goals, said Bill Bissett, president of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce, which endorses individual Republican and Democratic candidates while promoting business.

“They’ve got to have things they can point to and explain quickly because it’ll be 2022 before you know what happened,” said Bissett, a longtime West Virginia political observer.

“There’s got to be something where they can say ‘Because of your belief in us, this is what we accomplished.’ And that ‘what we accomplished has got to be very definitive and very easy to explain.”

On the other hand, Beller said, the big majorities will also need to prove they’re attending to basic needs like healthcare and education.

“The state of education in West Virginia is and continues to be a mess,” Beller said. “This legislature has to figure out what it’s going to do with respect to education.

“You can’t be a no taxation party and simultaneously fund education. It’s impossible to recruit firms to a state where people are not meaningfully educated, where we don’t even have broadband in areas of the state.”

Democrats chart a course

Now deep in the minority, where will West Virginia Democrats go?

Belinda Biafore

“I believe everybody was a little shell-shocked,” said Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore, who suggested President Trump’s 40-point win over former Vice President Joe Biden in West Virginia was like a lightning bolt down the ballot.

“We all agree on one thing, that we’ve got to sit down and have a series of discussions.”

Manchin, perhaps West Virginia’s lone remaining name-brand Democrat, said the pendulum will swing back at some point. But he said Democrats need to make it clear what they fight for, like affordable healthcare, income equality and societal equity.

“The Democratic strategy is basically this: Tell the story of who we are. Tell the story of what you believe. Tell the story of how we’ve become the country we’ve become, how we’ve fought for the working person.”

Ryan Frankenberry, state director of the progressive West Virginia Working Families Party, said state Democrats haven’t been assertive enough in pushing back on President Trump’s positions.

“I think the parties and elected officials kind of avoided the topic of Trump as much as possible because they were afraid of drawing the ire of Trump voters,” Frankenberry said. “I think in hindsight that didn’t help anything.”

Based on what happened Election Night, Frankenberry concluded, “the reality is, it couldn’t have gotten any worse.”

He praised the consistent messaging of the West Virginia Republican Party and said Democrats should do the same.

“We need to be having honest discussions with the voters and we need to be uplifting policies that are going to help people and really point out over and over and over when there are policies that are hurting people. That’s where I find major deficiencies,” he said.

He cited individual Democratic candidates for House of Delegates like Joey Garcia of Marion County and Jim Barach of Kanawha who defied the wave with first-time electoral victories. The tide could start to turn, Frankenberry said, but it will likely take several electoral cycles.

“In 2022, there’s no question a person could challenge one of these Republican incumbents on their own record,” Frankenberry said. “But it has to start immediately.”

Tom Susman

Tom Susman is a local radio station owner, lobbyist and former agency chief during the administration of Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat. Now Susman is non-affiliated, but he sees a path back for Democrats.

“First they’ve got to come to the realization they’re on the mat. This is not the Democratic Party of Bob Byrd; this is not the Democratic Party of Jennings Randolph and Jay Rockefeller. And they’ve got to re-tune and begin to look to the long haul.”

Doing that means being vocal about policy goals, Susman said. Susman expressed admiration for Democrat Kayla Young, who was just elected as a delegate for Kanawha County after running an energetic, aggressive campaign.

“This is not going to happen in two years, three years, four years. It’s a long haul, and you’ve got to give people a reason to say they’re proud to be a Democrat.

“You look at healthcare, you look at worker rights. I think there are a number of things you can talk about, but they’ve been afraid to talk about them.”

That’s about what Khan, a West Virginia University freshman, proposes. He is on the Democratic Party executive committee and was the Young Democrat of the Year last year.

“I think we have to do a better job of explaining to the voters what being a West Virginia Democrat means,” he said.

“I think the Republican Party here has done a really effective job of tying candidates in West Virginia for the Democratic Party to the national politics.”

The ammunition is usually policies like “defend the police” or “The Green New Deal,” but Khan said those are not embraced by most Democrats.

“For me, the Democratic Party represents the middle class and small business and fairness and justice,” he said.

Khan knocked on doors, held aloft signs and waved at passing cars during election season, pushing candidates like Ben Salango, the 46-year-old lawyer who ran for governor. That largely didn’t pay off in the short term, but Khan believes the effort will over time.

“It’s time for a new generation of leaders to step up,” Khan said.

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