Dave Mistich Published

A ‘Red Tsunami’ Driven By Trump’s Popularity: What The GOP’s Dominance In West Virginia Portends For The Statehouse

Capitol Dome, Capitol, Legislature

While the race for President is yet to be decided, the dust has settled for other races up and down the ballot in West Virginia. It’s immediately clear that the Republican Party is fully in control of nearly every aspect of state government.

While West Virginia’s five electoral votes overwhelmingly went to President Donald Trump, and Gov. Jim Justice handedly won re-election, the GOP dominated Democrats across congressional and statehouse races. All five constitutional offices will land in the hands of Republicans, as well.

Political experts note that the shift to Republican has been happening since after the turn of the century. The GOP overtook the majority at the statehouse and has maintained it since 2014.

West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Robert Rupp said this week’s election showed a level of domination in West Virginia that was once reserved for Democrats.

“[The election’s] returns just verified what has happened to West Virginia’s politics in a generation,” Rupp said. “It’s gone from one of the most blue states to one of the most red states — because [it] was a red wave, if not a red tsunami.”

Republicans Take Supermajorities in West Virginia Senate, House of Delegates

That “red tsunami” that Rupp speaks of translates to even more power for Republicans in the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. The GOP is set to hold supermajorities in both chambers for at least the next two years.

Feeling some momentum after knocking off Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in the June primary, Democrats had hoped to chip away at the 20-14 majority Republicans held in the upper chamber.

But incumbent Republicans all won their races and other GOP candidates took open seats that had been held by Democrats — allowing an even wider majority. After Tuesday’s election, Republicans are set to hold a 23-11 advantage over Democrats.

West Virginia University political science professor Scott Crichlow said he expected Democrats to take some seats in the Senate that ultimately wound up in the hands of Republicans.

“Any Democrat is going to have almost an impossible task of winning when — in large portions of the state — Trump is winning by 50 [percentage points].” Crichlow said. “I think it’s very much Trump.”

As a result of the election, the power shift in the House of Delegates will be even more dramatic.

Coming into Tuesday, Republicans held 58 of the 100 seats in the lower chamber. Democrats held 41 seats and there was a lone Independent. Following the election, Republicans are poised to take 76 seats when the legislative session rolls around in February.

Political experts like Rupp say such wide majorities should result in swift policy changes, like education reforms or tax policy changes. But he also expressed some concern over any party having such power to do so.

“The way the government was constructed was a belief in checks and balances — and the danger of a supermajority for any party is that it will use its power unchecked,” Rupp said.

What Those Supermajorities Mean For The Legislative Process

If the Republican caucuses in the House and Senate are unified, most legislative proposals should have no trouble being passed before being sent to the governor for final approval.

While bills need only a simple majority to pass each chamber, proposed constitutional amendments — which come in the form of joint resolutions — require a two-thirds majority. With supermajorities in both the Senate and House of Delegates, such proposals could be easily cleared by the Legislature before heading to a vote of the general public.

Take, for example, an effort by Republicans in recent years to repeal the manufacturing inventory personal property tax, a tax that accounts for roughly $300 million in annual revenue that goes to counties to fund public education. With Democrats having stood opposed to such a proposal, a joint resolution on the matter failed to achieve a two-thirds majority in the 2020 legislative session.

West Virginia University political science professor Scott Crichlow, the WVU political science professor, said it’s likely that the proposal may be first out of the gate in 2021.

“I mean, they clearly wanted to do it before and they certainly have the votes to do it now,” Crichlow said.

Crichlow also said he thinks policy changes under Republican supermajorities will go far beyond a repeal of that particular tax.

“I think what you definitely will see will be the things where there’s now a lot of obvious agreements [between Republicans], like changes in tax policy, which will then necessitate cuts in things like education and social services and things like that down the road,” Crichlow said.

Redistricting Could Make For Even Bigger GOP Gains in 2022

Another effect of the election is the impending redistricting of West Virginia House districts. In 2018, the Legislature approved a bill that calls for the 67-member House districts to be reformed into 100 single-member districts following the completion of the 2020 Census.

With Republicans heavily in control — which also allows them to dominate committees considering legislation — they could redraw districts in their favor.

Marshall University political science professor MaryBeth Beller thinks the supermajorities will allow the GOP to do just that — and with few objections.

“In terms of that power for redistricting — especially when we go to single-member districts — that, I think, is going to be significant, Beller said. “In other words, if we’re redistricting in such a way that the district pits two members of the minority party against one another.”

Crichlow also noted the effect a supermajority is likely to have on redistricting.

“Obviously, they will have carte blanche to do whatever they want with redistricting, which I would assume means — not sure how you can make the numbers in the House even smaller for Democrats — but I’m sure that they will do their best to do that,” Crichlow said.

Voter Turnout Attributed To Coronavirus, Trump’s Popularity

Following Tuesday’s election, the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office said early unofficial numbers show that 787,049 registered voters cast a ballot. With just under 1.27 million registered voters, total turnout — which represents absentee ballots, early and day-of voting — translates to a 62 percent participation rate.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on turnout, at least in terms of absentee ballots. Some 144,128 ballots were returned (out of 153,773 that were requested), translating to a nearly 94 percent return rate.

But political experts in the state attribute overall turnout to Trump’s popularity here, especially considering he won the state over Democrat Joe Biden by roughly 39 percentage points.

“We basically saw [that] a highly partisan and highly energetic populist will solve the turnout question rather easily,” Rupp said.

Brittany Patterson contributed reporting to this story.