Straight-ticket Box Gone, West Virginia GOP Leans on Trump

Nov 7, 2016

Republican candidates throughout West Virginia's ballot are trying to show voters they're with Donald Trump.

Credit West Virginia Press Association

But getting a bump from Trump could take extra legwork this year, after the GOP dropped the option to vote straight party-line with one mark on the ballot.

In TV ads, gubernatorial hopeful Bill Cole promises a Cole-Trump team will make West Virginia great again.

U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney is handing out yard signs with his name next to Trump's.

And Attorney General Patrick Morrisey's latest ad says he and Trump will protect coal jobs and support gun rights.

While many Republicans elsewhere have run away from Trump, the Mountain State's down-ballot candidates hope to capitalize on what could be the billionaire's most supportive voter base. The local GOP is even dropping Trump's name in the Wood County clerk race.

"Like Donald Trump, (Bob Buchanan) will build a wall around the ballots, and make sure only legal Americans are voting in Wood County," the radio ad says.

In 2015, the GOP-led Legislature scrapped the ability for voters to check one box and pick all candidates from one political party. The option favored Republicans in their takeover of the Legislature after the 2014 election.

Although West Virginia has veered to the political right in recent years, its voters have split tickets in major races. The state hasn't preferred a Democrat for president since Bill Clinton in 1996 — the same year it last elected a Republican governor, Cecil Underwood.

Trump has surged in popularity by making broad-stroke promises to put coal miners back to work, defying economic forecasts.

Hillary Clinton has drawn little love in West Virginia after supporting anti-global warming limits on carbon pollution from coal-fired power plants. The backlash became even stronger when she said she would "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business." She later called it a misstatement as she called for new economic opportunities for the coalfields, particularly in renewable energy.

After the 2014 election, the state GOP turned a corner by flipping the majority in the Legislature for the first time in more than eight decades. This year's election will show whether the GOP can take over the vast majority of the state government — or if Democrats can bounce back from losses in a state where Clinton and President Barack Obama are woefully unpopular.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who is not on this year's ballot, told The Associated Press last month that "from the outside looking in, everybody says West Virginia is a Republican state. That's not the case."

She added, "As the lead Republican in the state, it's taken a long time to get to even somebody making that statement. There's still a very large network of strong Democrats that still remain in the state and are going to want to have the stranglehold of the state Capitol remain in that party, because they've lost the House and Senate."

In the 2014 general election, voters cast more than 126,400 straight-ticket ballots — roughly 53 percent for Republicans and 42 percent for Democrats. The rest opted for other parties.

About 462,900 people turned out to vote, meaning 27 percent of voters used the straight-party option. In previous elections, Republicans criticized the policy, saying it protected Democratic incumbents.

Lawmakers ushered in the change under the leadership of Cole, the state Senate president and GOP gubernatorial nominee. He now faces the prospect of losing more split-ticket votes to Democratic nominee Jim Justice, a billionaire coal businessman and household name.

"I'm not going to lie to you: I wish I had waited two years, because I think a straight ticket with Donald Trump at the top, and his continued high popularity in this state, might have made my life a lot easier," Cole said. "But it was the right thing to do."

Democrats think the elimination of straight-ticket voting could limit how Republicans benefit from the Trump tide.

"That was one of their promises to the electorate, that they would change straight-line voting," said Mark Hunt, a Democrat challenging Rep. Mooney. "By George, they did it, to their detriment, I think."