There’s always been the debate, to which region does West Virginia belong? Former Senator Robert C. Byrd was famously quoted as saying West Virginia is the most northern southern state, the most southern northern state, the most eastern western state and the most western eastern state. Many West Virginians will tell you, we belong with everyone and yet, we belong with no one.
So, when an article in The Washington Post depicted West Virginia as a strong blue state slowly becoming red, a phenomenon not unfamiliar to southern states, state leaders on the Democratic side were up in arms against the claim.
“In this past election, of all elections in the state of West Virginia, the fact is that Democrats won 67 percent of all the races which left the Republican Party to win 33 percent,” said Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio. “So, there is not a question that it is a Democratic state.”
However, Dr. Robert Rupp, history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College, said, historically, we’re following that trend the other southern states took decades ago.
“The situation in West Virginia since, basically starting in 2000, is a slow and sustained transition from an extremely loyal Democrat state to a Republican state. From a blue state to a red state,” Rupp said.
“However, what’s interesting about the transition is that unlike other states in the south; let’s use Georgia for example in which the transition happened in less than a decade, in West Virginia the transition is slower and at different levels.”
In the southern United States, once known as the “Solid South” because of the Democratic Party’s political stronghold, things began to change in the early 1960s. The region became more urbanized and could no longer hold their ground on racial segregation. And they started voting Republican at the so called “top of the ticket” for President.
“I think that is the trend that we have seen through much of the south which was very traditionally Democratic, which began to vote Republican at the top of the ticket starting with Richard Nixon,” said National Political Correspondent for The Washington Post Karen Tumulty. “Ultimately, for a lot of those states, for my home state of Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, they have gone very deeply red.”
Tumulty grew up in Texas and said the people she knew more than 30 years ago as Democrats now identify themselves as Republicans. The journalist traveled to southern West Virginia four times over the summer researching her article, “A Blue State’s Road to Red.”
“The one thing that was beginning to show up nationally in every poll was that American voters have never had a lower regard for the federal government,” Tumulty said.
And that low regard, she said, was nowhere more evident than in southern West Virginia.
“Most of that transformation, the most dramatic change has come about in coal country which was so reliably Democratic just up and down the ticket and really has undergone a great change and continues to,” she added.
In 2000, West Virginia began joining in on the trend, voting for George W. Bush in two elections followed by John McCain and Mitt Romney on the Presidential ticket.
State Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas said that’s how it starts. The party switch starts with voters at the office of President and slowly trickles down to the state and local levels.
“It’s definitely a top down voting trend as opposed to bottom up. Much like what was written in The Washington Post, there are still county courthouses where there aren’t Republicans elected,” Lucas said. “There are still counties where it is very difficult to find a Republican to run for the House of Delegates or for any of the county offices despite the fact that federally we are so solidly red now.”
“So, seeing that this trend is happening in the exact same sociological and political manner in which it did in other states indicates that we are no different than those other states in many ways," he added. "Politically, the trends are what they are and we’re certainly following a historical pattern.”
Puccio agreed, we are following a historical pattern, just not the same one Lucas sees.
“When folks are really down on the individual that’s running for President that does harm the rest of the party and I think some of that showed up here,” he said. “There’s not a question that the favorability for our President is not high here in West Virginia.”
Rupp, however, is not sure. He believes that trickle down pattern will follow in time.
“West Virginia still has a two to one Democratic edge in registration, but the story in West Virginia is a state that’s two to one Democratic is switching over to Republican,” Rupp said. “Now, what’s even more interesting is that when you go down to Wyoming County, it’s seven to one, nine to one Democrats.”
“Virtually everyone in that county is registered as a Democrat, but they’re not voting as a Democrat.”
Rupp said on the federal level, West Virginians are voting more and more to send Republicans to Washington, with the exception of Senator Joe Manchin. Rupp admitted though, Manchin isn’t much of an exception.
“In America, there are three political parties,” Rupp said. “There’s the Republican Party, the Democratic Party and the West Virginia Democrats, and I say that because West Virginia Democrats have been able to keep control on the state level because, one, it’s a huge, big tent in which you can have very conservative members feel comfortable in the Democratic Party as well as liberals.”
“For that reason we can see the election of someone like Joe Manchin even though the state seems to be shifting in a Republican direction.”
Tumulty said as she traveled the southern West Virginia, she too could tell West Virginia Democrats were different, but that observation only reminded her of the transition she witnessed in Texas years ago.