Political Dominance is Not Permanent: A Look at West Virginia’s Politics

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The political affiliations of states are not permanent, and the proof of it is in the state of West Virginia. The voters of this state have time and again switched their political loyalties. In fact, there are multiple eras that can be found with West Virginia: Republican Founding (1863-1875), Democratic Takeover (1875-1895), Republican Return (1895-1933), Democratic Dominance (1933-2001), Transition (2001-2015), and Republican Dominance (2015-present).

The state of Virginia was majorly divided on slavery and when the political leadership of Virginia decided to join the Confederacy, the people of the western portion of the state decided to form a separate state: West Virginia. Although the political leadership was staunchly unionist, it was also not super bullish on civil rights and radical Republicanism. Some of the unionists were themselves slaveowners, including one of the state’s first Republican senators, Waitman T. Willey. In 1868, one of its Republican senators, Peter G. Van Winkle, voted against impeaching President Andrew Johnson.

In 1870, the state began moving to the Democrats with the election of two representatives and that year Democrat Henry G. Davis was elected to the Senate. In 1874, the economic decline precipitated by the Panice of 1873 produced great losses for the Republicans, and West Virginia’s delegation went entirely Democratic with the remaining Republican representative losing reelection. Democrat Allen T. Caperton, a former Confederate senator, succeeded retiring Republican Arthur Boreman, who had signed the West Virginia law abolishing slavery as governor. Democrats dominated the scene in West Virginia from 1875 to 1895, but just as a major economic downturn brought Democrats to dominance in the 1874 election, the major downturn under Cleveland brought Republicans to dominance. They would remain so in the state until the 1932 election.

The Democratic dominance produced by the New Deal would last remarkably long, with Republicans until 2000 only winning the state in the presidential elections of 1956, 1972, and 1984. Democrats held both Senate seats from 1959 to 2015 and the delegation to Congress was only Democratic from 1969-1981 and from 1983-2001. Union organization of coal miners was a major factor in keeping the state Democratic for as long as it was given the increasingly socially liberal politics of the national Democratic Party. Many of the state’s Democratic officials were considerably more conservative than the national party on social issues, so this held off Republicans for some time. However, with the 2000 election the state’s movement to the Republicans began with George W. Bush’s win by over six points and the election of Shelley Moore Capito to the House. Bush’s appeal to family values after the Clinton impeachment helped move the state into the Republican column.

The state grew even more Republican after the election of Barack Obama in 2008, with his energy policies widely denounced in the state as the “war on coal”. In 2010, both of the state’s senators were Democrats, and Shelley Moore Capito stood as the only Republican representative. Today, Republicans hold all three House seats and Capito holds one of the Senate seats. Republicans had made gains everywhere, winning control over the Senate and the House of Delegates, and getting Governor Jim Justice to switch from Democrat to Republican. The only remaining Democrat is Joe Manchin, who is without question the least liberal among Democratic senators and even he had a close call in his 2018 reelection bid.
The deciding factor for politics in West Virginia has been economics, and while one might think the 2008 election would have brought the state more Democratic, the Republicans are friendlier on energy policy to the coal industry, and West Virginia has been one of the most hurting states in terms of economic trends. In 2020, the state voted for Trump by almost 69% of the vote, and he won all counties. He even improved his already high performance in the state. Only Wyoming had a greater percentage for Trump this year, and Wyoming has been entirely Republican in its national voting behavior since 1978. Republicans have also achieved supermajorities in the Senate and House of Delegates with the 2020 election. Although right now Democrats are certainly on the outs in the state, it may be that within the next forty years the state moves back into the Democratic column. Nothing is permanent and nothing is impossible in American politics.

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