From Franklin D. Roosevelt’s era until the 2000 election, it was among the most reliably Democratic states, one of only six that Jimmy Carter carried in 1980, and 10 that Michael S. Dukakis won in 1988.
But in the past decade or so, “West Virginia has realigned politically with the Deep South, at least in presidential elections,” historian John Alexander Williams said in a June lecture in Charleston marking the state’s 150th anniversary. “Between the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, a time when voters were trending strongly Democratic in other parts of the nation, 366 of official Appalachia’s 410 counties increased their Republican share of presidential votes.”
In 2012, that trendline cut more deeply. Obama lost the seven West Virginia counties he had carried in 2008. It marked the first time that a major party’s presidential candidate suffered a 55-county shutout.
“People haven’t changed here. People are still the same,” said Sen. Joe Manchin III, a former West Virginia governor. “But I’ve never seen more people pushed away from their traditional Democratic roots or their voting habits than in the last six or seven years.” Manchin has put that fraying bond to the test, having sponsored gun-control legislation that failed in the Senate this year.
Next year’s elections could mark a historic hinge in West Virginia politics. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D), a traditional liberal forged by the Great Society, has announced that he will not run for a sixth term.
His most likely successor is Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of a three-term governor, who would be the first Republican that West Virginia elected to the Senate since 1956. Although Capito is considered a heavy favorite, Democrats came up with a strong contender when Secretary of State Natalie Tennant formally entered the race.
Meanwhile, Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, an 18-term congressman and the last surviving Democrat in the state’s House delegation, is facing what many expect to be his most difficult reelection contest.