The 2014 Midterm Elections: How Both Parties Dealt with The Flip from Blue to Red
On Nov. 4, 2014, Democratic State Senator Robert Beach of the thirteenth district was at home when he realized that although he had won his race for the senate, his party was losing its grip on the state.
“It felt like a punch in the gut,” he said.
It’s easy to forget in the 2016 election cycle, but West Virginia wasn’t always so strongly Republican. For more than 80 years, the state was solidly blue in the House of Delegates and the Senate. Voters believed that the Democrats best represented union interests. But in the 2014 midterm elections, that reign came to an end. By the time the polls closed, the Senate was tied, until the GOP convinced then-Democratic Senator Daniel Hall to switch parties. He couldn’t be reached for comment for this story.
Democratic State Senator Jeff Kessler, once the Senate President, became the minority leader. In his law office in Moundsville, he was quick to pinpoint what he believed to be the issue that turned the tide against the Democrats.
“Coal, coal, coal, ‘coal is king,’ and ‘war on coal’ stuff,” he said. “If there’s a war going on you gotta blame somebody. Who are you going to blame? There’s a downturn in the state’s economy. Who’s the party in charge? That was the Democrats.”
By November 2014, the state’s economy was indeed in a rough spot. The unemployment rate was high at 6 percent. About 18 percent of the state lived in poverty. Looking back, Kessler wishes that Democratic leadership had better transitioned the state out of its coal-driven economy before too many jobs were lost.
“Regardless who was in charge, they were singing from the same hymnbook. There was not enough vision out there pushing for diversification that should’ve been occurring under the Democratic leadership as well,” he said.
But the problem was more than just coal, too. Voter turnout was low too at 37 percent. And in 2008, Barack Obama’s win of the presidency rattled the Democratic Party’s message.
“A lot of Democratic leaders in West Virginia began to send a message to the local electorate that said, ‘Hey look, the national Democratic leadership, particularly Barack Obama, is not going to help West Virginia. However, local West Virginia leaders and legislatures will,’" said Marybeth Beller, an associate professor in the political science department at West Virginia University. “That sends a mixed message.”
To this day, that message still isn’t clear. It’s known for “West Virginia Democrats,” candidates who run for office as Democrats for the votes but are actually socially and fiscally conservative. The Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice won’t endorse Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
“We still continue to divorce ourselves or refuse to embrace any type of progressive philosophy that historically has been the backbone of the democratic party. We sort of run from it,” Kessler said.
Meanwhile, the Republican Party State Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas has been wasting no time doing what the Democrats have yet to do - send a clear message to voters about what his party is about.
“We are the conservative party. We are the party that stands for traditional values. We are the pro-life party. We are the party that supports the second Amendment,” he said.
For Lucas, the flip in 2014 came as no surprise. Signs of the impending flip came as early as 2000, when President George Bush won West Virginia in 2000 - it was the first time a Republican president had won the state since in 16 years. That same year, now-Republican Senator Shelley Moore Capito won her first race in the House of Delegates. Now, the Republican Party needs to defend its seats in the House and Senate. As its popularity grows, it’s becoming easier to recruit candidates to run as Republicans, and Lucas expects a variety of conservative ideology among candidates with time. He says he has no fear of the Democrats returning to its previous majority status in the legislature.
“The Democrat party in West Virginia is rapidly moving to complete irrelevance,” he said.