W.Va. Politics
6:30 am
Fri November 8, 2013

W.Va.’s political center shifting north from a once booming south

A map detailing the population change in West Virginia counties from 2000-2010.
A map detailing the population change in West Virginia counties from 2000-2010.
Credit Appalachian Regional Commission with data from the U.S. Census Bureau

Southern West Virginia has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold, but an article in The Washington Post said that is starting to change.

With a decline in the coal industry’s production and a President enacting stronger regulations on it, the politics are shifting toward the right, at least, that’s what the article claims. But can it be said that a trend in southern West Virginia is actually happening across the entire state?

“Just about everybody you talk to can tell you of a grandfather or a great grandfather who actually came to West Virginia to make a life for themselves and their family and find economic opportunity in the coal mines,” said Karen Tumulty, national political correspondent for The Washington Post.

She spent time this summer traveling southern West Virginia, talking to people.

“The coal miner is just such a part of the shared heritage of West Virginia. The industry has a significance, I think, that goes much, much deeper than economic statistics will tell,” she said.

But as the industry struggles, West Virginians often look to place the blame, and State Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio said today, that blame is being shifted to Washington.

“The truth of the matter is I think that West Virginians believe not only the President is not doing enough to support the coal industry,” he said, “but they truly believe the President, with some of his beliefs and restrictions are harming the industry.”

Puccio said leaders from his party inside the beltway are making it clear they stand against the President and his position on coal, but with each election, the Democratic Party in West Virginia appears to be growing weaker as more and more Republicans are taking office. At least, that’s how Tumulty depicted the party in her article, “A Blue State’s Road to Red.”

“The southern part of the state has traditionally been the most deeply Democratic part of the state,” Tumulty said. “That is where the Democratic Party has always gotten the bulk of the votes with which it won statewide.”

But she added that trend is changing.

At the federal level, West Virginians are slowly turning away from their Democratic roots and voting Republican. She wrote, “What’s happening in West Virginia runs against the tide nationally, and even more, against the pull of its own history.”

“If I have difficulty with the story, it is it’s concentration on the narrative in southern West Virginia,” said Dr. Robert Rupp, professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

"Fifty years ago, southern West Virginia was the key economic driver, it was the key to the Democratic Party, it held political power, but now in the 21st century, we have seen a rapid decline in all those factors in terms of population, in terms of the economy and in terms of political clout." - Dr. Robert Rupp

He questioned Tumulty’s ability to assert the entire state is experiencing this change in party when she focused only on one region.

“Now, 50 years ago, southern West Virginia was the key economic driver, it was the key to the Democratic Party, it held political power,” he said, “but now in the 21st century, we have seen a rapid decline in all those factors in terms of population, in terms of the economy and in terms of political clout.”

“So, if you just visit this one section where there is decline in West Virginia, it’s an interesting narrative to ask how those citizens are reacting, but I think it’s a warped strategy because you’re ignoring what’s happening in the rest of the state.”

Rupp said the political center of the state is moving in a northeastern direction. Earl Ray Tomblin is the first governor since 1965 to truly come from southern West Virginia and today, both the state House and Senate are lead by northerners.

“If you’re really talking about looking at an entire state, then why visit those counties that have lost population rather than visit those counties that have gained in population and gained in the economy,” Rupp said. “There’s an entire picture of West Virginia that is lost to a national audience when the focus of outside journalists are simply on one area in the southern part.”

Tumulty counters by noting she interviewed members of the Governor’s staff who represent the entire state, both U.S. Senators who, again, together represent the entire state and writes of the booming shale industry in the northern counties and a panhandle thriving as suburb of D.C.

“What I was looking for was a way of explaining the transformation and again most of that transformation has been happening in the very deeply Democratic bastions of coal country,” she said.

Rupp, however, said he does agree with Tumulty’s thesis that the state is transitioning between the two political parties, after all the 3rd Congressional District is the only remaining seat in the U.S. House held by a Democrat in West Virginia.

Historically, he said, West Virginia is joining in with its southern cousins who followed the trend decades ago, but believes the other regions of West Virginia are still important to understanding the political change.

“I think if we really want to understand this transition, we have to be able to examine and explore what is happening politically in the other sections of the state, particularly in the panhandle,” Rupp said. “That’s the fastest growing region and any political party that is able to get the edge in that region will probably dominate the state just as the Democrats were able to get the edge in the southern part of the state and were able to dominate the state for such a long time.”

Tumulty said West Virginia will be a state to watch come the 2016 election. She contended there’s still a chance the right type of Democrat could win the states vote for President and make a difference, even though it only carries 5 votes.

“Well, if Al Gore had had those five votes he’d be building his presidential library about now.”