Democratic candidates for statewide office need help… from Republicans

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams and Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott may feel a breeze lifting them up following Tuesday’s Primary Election. Both Democrats won their races:  Williams was unopposed in the race for his party’s gubernatorial nomination and Elliott received 45 percent of the vote in a three-person race to win the U.S. Senate nomination.

But as the reality of the upcoming General Election settles in, both Williams and Elliott will find that the breeze they are feeling is more of a headwind. Each faces long odds in November—Williams vs. Republican nominee Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for Governor and Elliott against Republican Governor Jim Justice for U.S. Senate.

Elliott is a bigger long-shot because Justice is a dominant political figure. Republican Representative Alex Mooney could manage only 27 percent of the vote against 61 percent for Justice. Williams also begins as an underdog because Morrisey just won a statewide race, and Republicans have a growing registration advantage—40 percent to 30 percent, with the remaining 30 percent independents/no party or third party.

Both Elliott and Williams need some version of the 1996 General Election in West Virginia to have a chance, meaning they need help from the other party. That year, the Democratic nominee was Charlotte Pritt who squared off against the Republican nominee and former Governor Cecil Underwood.

Back then, Democrats had a significant registration advantage, and Pritt had momentum coming off a victory over Joe Manchin in the Primary Election. If voters had stuck with their party’s nominee, Pritt would have won easily. Additionally, Democrat Bill Clinton was running for re-election and he was assured of carrying West Virginia again, providing strength at the top of the ticket.

Early in the campaign, Pritt led Underwood by 22 points.

However, many of the state’s more conservative and pro-business Democrats were terrified that Pritt, who was very liberal and pro-labor, would win. They formed a Democrats for Underwood group to support the Republican. Leading Democratic politicians, including Senator Robert Byrd and former Governor Gaston Caperton provided only generic endorsements of “the Democratic nominee.”

On Election Day, thousands of Democrats voted for Clinton and then crossed over to vote for Underwood, who won the election with 52 percent of the vote, compared with 46 percent for Pritt.

In 2024, Williams and Elliott also need party defections to have a chance, only this time it would be Republicans crossing over to vote for Democratic candidates. That is a tall order, especially since Donald Trump will be at the top of the ticket and he is more popular here than Clinton was.

It is unlikely that as many Republicans will flip in 2024 as Democrats did in 1996. The circumstances are not exactly analogous, but the strategy holds true; when you are in the minority and an underdog, you need help wherever you can find it.

In the case of Williams and Elliott, that help must come from Republicans.




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