It was not that many years ago that the Republican Party in West Virginia was an afterthought. Democrats held supermajorities in both the House and Senate. Republicans could fuss and fume, but Democrats had the numbers to do whatever they wanted.
That paradigm has shifted completely in the last two decades. Republicans now hold 89 of the 100 seats in the House and 31 of 34 seats in the Senate. Legislatively, Democratic lawmakers are a nonfactor.
However, just like the Democrats of those bygone years, not all Republicans are of like mind. It stands to reason that, as the number of elected Republicans in the Legislature goes up, so does the diversity of opinions.
Generally, Republicans fall into two camps: center-right and far right. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Senate President Craig Blair and their leadership teams fall into the center-right category. They are more interested in pro-business issues than fighting culture wars.
However, the current leadership often finds itself at odds with the far right, and now that most conservative wing of the GOP is getting organized.
This week, Delegate Geoff Foster (R, Putnam) announced the creation of the West Virginia Freedom Caucus (WVFC). A release from Foster said the caucus would be the “spearhead” of the conservative moment in the State Legislature. The WVFC will serve and defend the People of West Virginia and begin to usher in the promise of our Republican government.”
In his release, Foster said their goal is to “protect personal freedoms, shrink the size of government and government control, reinforce traditional family values, reduce spending and taxes, and promote constitutional conservative values as intended by the Founding Fathers of the United States.” Foster said on Talkline this week about 30 members of the House and Senate have joined the caucus.
Long-time Republican campaign consultant Greg Thomas is openly critical of the WVFC. He contends the group members are simply frustrated because they are not running the show.
“If they are denying the facts about how conservative this Legislature is, they are just showing their lack of seriousness,” Thomas said. “You can go out and promote specific conservative issues that haven’t been addressed yet in a professional manner or you can kind of go and complain and whine about not being in charge.”
Thomas’s criticism is notable because for the last two decades he has been a point man for electing Republicans to the Legislature. Now he and more right-center Republicans find themselves in the position of fending off pressure from the far right.
Thomas also said some of the far right legislators can expect Primary Election challenges. One example is the 11th Senate district where the more moderate Republican Robbie Morris has been recruited to challenge incumbent Senator Robert Karnes, who is one of the most conservative members of the Senate and frequent critic of Senate leadership.
But the far right is also looking to shake things up in the Primary. Senate President Blair (R, Berkeley) is being challenged by Tom Willis and former House Republican firebrand Mike Folk. Folk said on the radio show Panhandle Live, “We’re spending like drunken sailors at the state and federal level and at the same time promoting some very—well, let’s just call it what it is—people refer to it as ‘woke’.”
The electoral success of Republicans in West Virginia in recent elections is a mirror of the years of Democratic dominance. The Democrats were divided into traditional liberals and pro-business, anti-abortion moderates and conservatives. It was frequently an uneasy, even contentious, bunch.
That comes with one-party dominance, which Republicans are now finding out.