How Democrats lost West Virginia (and how they can find it again)

By Chris Regan | Dec 11, 2014

WHEELING – Last month, for the first time in nearly a century, the people of West Virginia elected Republican majorities to both chambers of the Legislature.

While Republicans expected gains in the off-year election, the results exceeded their wildest expectations. The resounding defeat of Democrats, some who did not even feel threatened enough to run substantial campaigns, made the election in our state a national story.

One Washington D.C. newspaper even called West Virginia's shift a "permanent political realignment" in Appalachia.

How could this happen? How could a state that had elected Democratic majorities since the 1920s shift so far in the other direction in one mountain-moving election?

There are folks on the left who say, predictably, that Democrats lost by not being far left enough – they say Democrats just tried to out-Republican the Republicans and found they weren't any good at it.

Of course, there are folks on the right who say that West Virginia just came to its senses all of a sudden, and embraced the great wisdom of the GOP at last, and maybe forever.

And then there are folks who want to blame it all on President Obama - saying he was just so unpopular that no Democrat could win with him in the White House.

Try "none of the above."

People do things for reasons and for reasons that make good sense to them. West Virginians had good reasons to send Democratic majorities to Charleston all those years and they had good reasons to change their minds in 2014. Let's figure out what the reasons were.

Reason 1: West Virginia has always been a state of working people and it votes for the party it believes represents working people. For 80 years or more, working West Virginians believed that Democrats, largely through organized labor, represented their interests.

They sent Democrats to Congress and to Charleston with majorities over 70 and sometimes even 80 percent by voting the straight Democratic ticket for one reason – they felt a vote for the Democrats was a vote for working men and women and their families.

What happened?

West Virginians were convinced this year that Democrats don't represent working people any more. They think Democrats stand for handouts and giveaways to people who aren't working and that their tax dollars are going to support people who are making fools out of them by living of the government while they work hard for a decent living.

The new health care law is part of that perception, even among170,000 West Virginians who use it, but so are abuses in older programs like SSI disability and welfare. No party can get the vote of a working person who thinks it gives his tax money to a layabout who lives on the same street, but never goes to work.

Reason 2: Coal. The economy in West Virginia has long been built on mineral and resource extraction – first timber, then coal, and newly, gas. In 1940, coal mining employed 130,000 West Virginians. Those jobs accounted for an astonishing 30 percent of all wages earned in the State. Older West Virginians came of age in a State absolutely dominated by the coal economy.

But time has taken its toll on coal. By 2008, fewer than 22,000 of those jobs remained – and coal jobs accounted for just 5 percent of the wages paid statewide. Profits for the industry have fared much better, of course. But the long decline of coal jobs and wages has not shaken West Virginia's self-image as a "coal state."

So West Virginians, feeling the pinch of the slow economy, were handed a reason for it: the "War on Coal." The federal Environmental Protection Agency, led by Democratic appointees in the Obama Administration is said to be leading this war, and therefore to be the cause of West Virginia's problems. For some national Democrats, the shoe absolutely fits – plenty of hard left-wingers despise coal as a dirty fuel that contributes to climate change.

West Virginia Democrats have no such views (one Democratic member of the House of Delegates actually has the twitter handle "@CoalDelegate," for heaven's sake). West Virginia has not been electing anti-coal legislators all these years. But guilt by association can be a powerful force and it costs West Virginia Democrats dearly this year.

Reason 3: Complacency. If there's one thing Americans do not like and do not respect, it is complacency – and West Virginians like it even less. Holding majorities for so long must have made some Democrats feel invincible.

I'm not talking so much about a few who didn't campaign all that hard – it wasn't the campaigning, but the working that caught up with the Democratic majority. A Legislature should be constantly working to improve things for the people and the state. Too much winning, for too long, by too big a margin, and you wake up to find you've been shown the door. Many Democrats who lost had worked hard, for sure, but some who didn't were the difference between a manageable defeat and the rout we saw on Election Day.

So what's next?

Are they right in Washington D.C. when they say that Appalachia has been "permanently realigned" toward the GOP? It's up in the air for now – one championship does not make a dynasty and one election does not realign a state, let alone a whole region. If the Democratic Party is to regain its majority in West Virginia, it will have to focus on three areas - and it's no coincidence that they mirror the three areas that cost them in 2014.

First, Democrats will have to return to their roots as the party that makes the state work for working people. Hard-working West Virginians will not tolerate feeling like chumps for cheats who are milking the system.

They will give anyone a hand up, but they think they are giving out hammocks. Meaningful reform of programs that give taxpayer money to those down on their luck must take place. Democrats have to make sure it pays to work by increasing the minimum wage – its value has fallen 32 percent since it came in, and it no longer keeps a family of just two out of poverty.

They must, likewise, plan to get workers retrained and into jobs by growing and diversifying the economy.

But the public will not accept any proposal that fails to address and meaningfully counteract the fraud among those seeking government benefits and the perception of that. Part and parcel of ending welfare dependency will be ending drug dependency with efficient effective treatment in lieu of the expensive and wasteful cycle of incarceration. Since many of the programs most abused are federal, candidates need to address the issue at that level.

The organized labor movement that brought West Virginia workers overtime pay, fringe benefits, a modicum of workplace safety, and Social Security itself, needs to re-dedicate itself to new, visible changes that working people feel in their quality of life and their pocketbooks.

Moreover, disasters like the Upper Big Branch explosion and the Freedom Industries chemical spill point the way for a party that believes in holding industry accountable for wrongdoing that kills workers and hurts the state's economy and reputation. The paltry fine meted out by OSHA to Freedom Industries was a disgrace.

Democrats cannot coddle tycoons like the now-indicted Don Blankenship or the corporate thieves who stole pensions from coal miners via the "Patriot Coal" company fraud. They are the true enemies of working West Virginians.

Second, Democrats must make the case for a diversified economy honestly, forthrightly and without fear of being painted as an "enemy of coal." Coal remains a significant, but shrinking part of the economic picture – and much of coal's decline relates to market forces beyond the control of even the federal government, let alone the legislature.

Opportunities in natural gas extraction, refinement and transport must be seized. Crucially, the next wave of extraction in West Virginia has to come with a new deal for the people of the state where these rich deposits of natural gas have been found. Extraction must fund permanent improvements for the lives of West Virginians – better schools, better health care, better roads and bridges, to support the workers who will live and raise their families here.

A state with world-class resources should have world class infrastructure and services – there is plenty of room for improvement. Those who have lost coal jobs that won't return must be re-trained.

Senator Jeff Kessler's "future fund" is a start, but it will need to be multiplied in magnitude and augmented to make the necessary difference. The fact that Kessler, hailing from a major coal producing county, can talk about diversifying the economy proves that West Virginians will listen to an intelligent, balanced message about where the state is headed.

Other coal states are re-tooling and re-training, and West Virginia must do the same. With the future fund as an anchor, Democrats need to show a distinction between fostering industry for the benefit of the people and the GOP predilection to "give away the store" to business interests with poorly-thought out tax cut schemes.

Beyond extraction, West Virginia must reinvest in manufacturing, agriculture and especially tourism- the latter has been a promising avenue for growth foolishly hamstrung by budget cuts. On almost every issue, Democrats need to come back to what is best for West Virginia in the long term. Evening out the boom-bust cycle that coal has given will be imperative.

Third, Democrats have to get to work. Notice has been given that seats in the Legislature, on the Supreme Court of Appeals, and in our Congressional delegation will not be handed to the candidate with (D) after his or her name. Labor unions have less hold on their memberships in an era of unprecedented media saturation.

The Democratic party has acquired a bad image and it takes a lot more work to repair a bad image than to maintain a good one. Some groups would stoop to any level to smear a Democrat in this most recent election, and it takes a toll. Trust that has been lost must be re-earned and that takes time and hard work.

The wild card is the other side, of course. A group of Republicans has the chance to govern West Virginia for the first time in their lives. What will they do with it? That will have a lot to do with why they think they've got the job in the first place.

If the GOP thinks it has ascended to fulfill a wish-list of ideological priorities that don't make a difference to ordinary West Virginians, their majority could be short-lived indeed. But if they beat the Democrats to the punch – if they make West Virginia a state that works for working people – then the realignment of Appalachia could become a reality.

Regan is an attorney with Bordas & Bordas in Wheeling.

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