Ashton Marra Published

A new generation of West Virginia voters in search of a new party


On a national level, political watchers say West Virginia is on the verge of a big change, one that would pull the state from its traditionally Democratic roots and push it toward a future of Republican leaders and a new generation of young voters might be behind that change.

West Virginians are a proud people, proud most of all of their heritage. Almost any West Virginian can share his or her story of a parent or grandparent who came to the state to work in the factories, steel mills or coal mines to provide for their families.

But a part of that heritage is also political. And most West Virginians will tell you, their parents and grandparents voted blue.

“What we’re finding is when they say that they’re a Democrat, they argue well, my dad was a Democrat or my granddad was a Democrat,” said Dr. Robert Rupp, professor of history at West Virginia Wesleyan College. “There’s a reluctance, one, to break with that tradition and also a kind of continuance of what’s being handed down from generation to generation.”

Rupp said that has been the trend for at least three generations in West Virginia, my grandparents voted Democrat, my parents voted Democrat so I vote Democrat.

But in the state, the tendency to vote blue is beginning to change, at least at the federal level. The state hasn’t been won by a Democratic candidate for President since 1996 with Bill Clinton, two of the three seats in the U.S. House are held by Republicans and, next year, the state could possibly see its first Republican U.S. Senator since the late 1950s.

“So, there’s a real question over whether these people are ultimately going to change their identity and become Republicans or whether there is enough of the Democratic Party in West Virginia’s heritage that they will continue to be Democrats,” said National Political Correspondent for The Washington Post Karen Tumulty, “at least in name.”

Tumulty’s article, “A Blue State’s Road to Red,” focuses on the transition in party power in southern West Virginia.

“West Virginians are so conservative they vote Democrat out of tradition,” said state Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas.

Lucas said that tradition is what’s hindering his party’s success at the state and local levels. West Virginians are so proud of their heritage they don’t want to let it go, but Lucas said his party is slowly starting to see a change.

“I come from a long line of Lincoln County Democrats myself, so we see younger people in West Virginia being more willing to vote Republican than those who have been voting Democrat for so many generations, for election after election and wanting to stay with their party,” he said, “but it’s younger folks who realizing that the values of the national and state Democrat Party don’t align with their belief systems.”

Rupp said nearly 60 percent of a person’s party identification is based on family, but in West Virginia, the inclination to vote blue is starting to change, in part, Rupp said just as Lucas sees it, because of a new generation of voters. Millennials.

"What we seem to be finding is that most Americans, but particularly this generation, are socially liberal and conservative on fiscal issues. Mainly, they want a small government and lower taxes and they want that same small government to keep out of their private affairs." – Dr. Robert Rupp

“What we seem to be finding is that most Americans, but particularly this generation, are socially liberal and conservative on fiscal issues,” Rupp said. “Mainly, they want a small government and lower taxes and they want that same small government to keep out of their private affairs.”

“The difficulty is that neither the Republican nor Democratic Party appears to offer both of those conditions. So, we have a generation that’s kind of up for grabs. That’s skeptical.”

The transition, however, is happening at a slower rate than many other southern states that went through the same political shift decades ago. For example, Rupp said Georgia took less than a decade to transition from a solidly blue to solidly red state.

Part of the reason Rupp accounted to the age of the average West Virginian. If the party switch is being pushed by the young voter, with the oldest median age of any state in the country, it’s easy to see why the transition may take longer here than the rest of the south.

And then there’s participation. Tumulty said young, West Virginia voters’ participation rates are among the lowest in the nation.

“If you look at those voter turnout numbers, last year voter turnout among the young plummeted in West Virginia. Certainly, I talked to young people, I saw young people, but they more than any element of the population in West Virginia seem to be the ones who are just turning their backs on politics,” she said, “and I think those voter turnout numbers speak volumes to that.”

Low turnout may be because young voters feel outnumbered in an older state or maybe because they don’t seem to fit with either party. Rupp said either could be true, but if the parties can get Millenials involved in the election process again, he believes we will see a change in results.

“I think that is going to contribute, maybe not for a transition from Democrat to totally Republican, but it will mean more divided ballots. It will mean voting will be based on pragmatic issues rather than ideological issues or party issues,” Rupp said.

“I think that way, if we do see this transition happening, the key role will be what is this generation of young voters who’s basically parents and grandparents continued allegiance to the Democratic Party and now they’re questioning if that allegiance should go. I think the fact that we have a split level shows that we are living in very interesting times.”

Rupp said another contributing factor to the change in politics for young voters is the decreasing importance young people see in unions.

Once a major part of the state’s economic and political processes, Rupp said unions are becoming less important as we move away from an industry based economy, having less influence over a new generation in the workforce.