MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Shelley Brannon, 62, can sum up the Obama presidency with three words. Well, three words and an exclamation.
“He screwed us,” said Brannon, a coal miner from Wise County, Va., as he sat outside a rally for the United Mine Workers of America. “Man, he screwed us.”
He shook his head under a camouflage hat that matched his camouflage UMWA T-shirt, and he described his fantasy of dumping nuclear waste in the yards of environmentalists, “if they think coal’s so bad.” He mulled over the mistake he says the UMWA made in 2008, when it endorsed Barack Obama over Hillary Rodham Clinton. Then he explained why he would probably be voting for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the next Democratic primary.
“For one thing, he knows what union is, and he respects it,” Brannon said. “That’s all we need is respect. He’s just a likable fellow, trustworthy. I don’t think she has the same respect for the union, and she really shot herself in the foot over, you know, all that secretive stuff.”
West Virginia has rejected the Obama-era Democratic Party more dramatically than any other state outside the South, with Appalachian counties that voted for Michael Dukakis and Walter Mondale turning blood red over the past eight years. But if you think it’s in places like this where the insurgent Sanders campaign faces its most formidable test, here’s what he thinks: It is also one of his greatest opportunities.
The Vermont socialist believes that white, working-class voters — the sort of people Obama once self-defeatingly said “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them” — are just one honest argument away from coming back.
“We have millions of working-class people who are voting for Republican candidates whose views are diametrically opposite to what voters want,” Sanders said in an interview. “How many think it’s a great idea that we have trade policies that lead to plants in West Virginia being shut down? How many think there should be massive cuts in Pell grants or in Social Security? In my opinion, not too many people.”
This state, one of the last to vote in the 2016 primary race, is supposed to be Clinton country. Seven years ago, in the 2008 primary, West Virginia Democrats gave Clinton a landslide victory over Obama. She won 69 percent of the white vote and did even better with voters who lacked a college education. A Democrat who improved a few points on Obama’s 39 percent of the national white vote in the 2012 general election would stroll into the White House.
Sanders, who has won elections only in a white, rural state, thinks his brand of bold democratic socialism can sell. He has never campaigned here, yet at Friday’s rally in Morgantown, miner after miner said they basically agreed with the former mayor of Burlington more than they agreed with Clinton. Several were aware that Sanders had walked picket lines, something that resonated as they packed a hotel ballroom to demand that Washington fully fund UMWA pensions. When the room quieted, a man recited a prayer against greed. “Lord, we know that Satan has those corporate thieves,” he said, “and they’re still trying to rob us.” Then a singer-songwriter started in:
It’s a long way to Wall Street from 12th and Main and the back roads of my home town.
There’s a new world order and times have changed, so they let these deals go down.
Sanders’s campaign theory may be that there’s a larger electorate hiding in plain sight. Over the summer, as he gained in polls, Sanders was criticized for bringing seemingly every issue back to the sediment of economics and class. Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson dubbed it “class reductionism.” Clinton allies had trouble seeing how his support could grow beyond white liberals.
Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who has endorsed Clinton, said Sanders has a weakness in West Virginia greater even than the socialist label: coal. Although the economics-first focus makes sense, Manchin said, Sanders’s support for every major Obama initiative on the environment makes his candidacy a “nonstarter” here.
“His environmental stance?” Manchin asked. “Oh, my, it would be awful.”
But Sanders believes that such naysayers are missing the weight of his cardinal argument — for greater economic fairness — and voters’ willingness to look past the other issues where they disagree.
He has won elections in Vermont, a white, rural, gun-owning state, as a socialist. The social-issue “distractions” bemoaned by red-state Democrats have seemed to bounce right off his armor. (He has taken mixed positions on gun control, supporting a ban on assault rifles, for instance, but opposing the Brady Bill.) In the end, is the white guy who voted for him in Vermont any different than the white guy in West Virginia or Kentucky or Ohio who was told to blame liberals for his problems?
“What I’ve found in Vermont and around the country is that we go to people and say, ‘Look, we do have differences,’ ” Sanders said. “ ‘I believe in gay marriage. I’m not going to change your view if you don’t. I believe climate change is absolutely real, and some of you do not. But how many of you think we should give hundreds of billions in tax breaks to the richest 1 percent?’ ”
Conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has made a similar argument — that his party can win, with no changes to its message, if more evangelical voters are inspired to come out. Bolstering Sanders’s case are his strong numbers in independent polls. A national Quinnipiac survey last month found him polling marginally better against leading Republican candidates than Clinton did. A Marquette University poll last week indicated that Sanders is running just as strong as Clinton in Wisconsin, home to some of the white voters who have abandoned the Democrats in off years.
Something similar may be happening in West Virginia. In Morgantown, home to West Virginia University, a 62-year-old activist named Andy Cockburn went to an early organizing meeting for Clinton and found only 10 other people. In July, more than 100 people packed a bar basement and started organizing for Sanders. Railing against oligarchies and “the 1 percent” means one thing in New York or San Francisco. It means more in West Virginia, where coal magnate Don Blankenship is standing trial and Patriot Coal is trying to spend most of a $22 million settlement for miners on its own attorneys. On Friday night, at the Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson dinner in the state capital, Charleston, Bill Clinton echoed his wife and condemned Patriot.
But Sanders is the candidate with consistency on corporate greed — a fact that has helped him slow down some labor endorsements for Clinton. According to the New York Times, the International Association of Fire Fighters hit the pause button on its expected endorsement after too many local leaders blanched. On Saturday, Sanders lost the endorsement of the National Education Association but only after a similar protest made Clinton work for it.
The UMWA has never endorsed Clinton. In 2008, it went for the doomed campaign of John Edwards, switching to Obama only after he had basically sewn up the nomination. In 2012 it made no endorsement, in an avowed protest of the administration’s environmental regulations. This year, the union, with 32,354 of its 71,160 members based in West Virginia, is not yet close to a decision.
“What we’re going to do is base our decision on our future here,” UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in an interview — “whether we’re going to have health care, have pensions, have jobs for people in Appalachia.”
That question could vex Sanders just as much as Clinton. In his energy talking points, Sanders notes that he “introduced the gold standard for climate-change legislation with Sen. Barbara Boxer to tax carbon and methane emissions,” a résumé item that would be about as welcome in West Virginia as a University of Maryland Terps jersey. Asked what he would say to a coal miner who blames Environmental Protection Agency regulations for the loss of his job, Sanders said he could only be straight with him.
“What we have to say is, ‘Look, through no fault of your own, you’re working in an industry which is helping to cause climate change and in fact having a negative impact on the country and world,’ ” Sanders said. “What the government does have is an obligation to say: ‘We’ll protect you financially as we transition away from fossil fuel. We are going to create jobs in your community, extended unemployment benefits. If you lose your job to a trade deal, you get benefits for two years. You get job training.’ I would take that same approach to energy jobs that are lost because of the threat of climate change.”
Nothing about Sanders’s pitch is easy, but this piece is especially rough.
State Rep. Mike Caputo (D), a miner and a union member, said his brothers need jobs, not pity. In an interview at the UMWA office in Fairmont, he asked: “You can train a guy to be a truck driver, but what’s he going to haul? Coal miners don’t want unemployment. They want work.”
Still, on Thursday, at his farm in Grafton, Democratic former state legislator Mike Manypenny was firm that enthusiasm for Sanders is big and getting bigger. Manypenny, one of the many casualties of a 2014 Republican sweep, is running for Congress on the theory that the progressive politics he shares with Sanders — a living wage, the return of Glass-Steagall’s repealed restrictions on banks — are the way to break the conservative grip on voters’ imaginations.
“The problem last year was that everybody focused on getting the vote out from the historic Democratic voters,” he explained. “Those are the seniors — I don’t need to tell you that each year you lose a little more of them. This is something new. Barring anything happening in the Democratic debate, like Bernie stumbling badly, I don’t see anything changing the momentum. I think he wins.”