A blue state’s road to red

A blue state’s road to red

A frustrated and angry West Virginia has been cutting ties with its reliably Democratic roots

Published on October 26, 2013

PINEVILLE, W.Va. — Those old enough to remember still tell visitors how this mountain town helped make history on April 26, 1960. That was the day 600 people showed up in front of the Wyoming County courthouse to hear a patrician senator with a Boston accent make his case to be their next president.

Above: Nearly all the storefronts in Welch, W.Va., are empty. The town is part of McDowell County, one of the poorest in the state and one of the most impoverished in the nation. (Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The electricity that afternoon in Pineville foreshadowed bigger things to come for the struggling candidate. Two weeks later, John F. Kennedy won more than 60 percent of the vote in West Virginia’s Democratic presidential primary, a victory that helped move the country past the presumption that a Catholic could never be elected to the White House.

In late June of this year, another expression of Pineville’s values appeared on the terraced lawn of the old courthouse. There was no fanfare around the installation of the new stone monument, but like that Kennedy rally more than half a century ago, it was a way of saying how the town felt about where the nation is headed.

The stone is engraved with the Ten Commandments, and it instructs: “They are to be used as a historical reference and model to enrich the knowledge of our citizens to an early origin of law from past generations so that they will serve as a historical guide for future generations to come.”

Video: Politics, economy and ATVs

With the decline of coal mining in West Virginia, a state that was once a stronghold in the Democratic party, many residents are changing their political views.
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The American Civil Liberties Union has complained that this is an encroachment of church on state, and an affront to religious minorities. A headline on the front page of the Charleston Gazette on July 4 asked: “Constitutional showdown in the making?”

But most here seem to agree with Melissa Mitchell, a stay-at-home mom who was getting things organized for a midsummer church picnic at a park near the courthouse.

“We love it, and we will fight for it,” she said of the stone marker.

Why? “Honestly, because everybody in this county hates Barack Obama. That is the biggest reason,” Mitchell said.

Animosity toward President Obama runs high here. He lost Wyoming County by nearly 56 percentage points last year, despite the fact that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 3 to 1.

But as Mitchell and her friends talked more about it, their conversation turned to fears and anxieties that had little to do with party or politics. They discussed the well-paying jobs that had vanished with the coal industry; the crime and drugs that followed; the changing culture that mocks what they hold sacred.

“This county has seen the need for God. We can’t control what’s going on out there in the world, but on this small little corner of our small little town, we can,” said one woman, who gave her name only as Megan.

Ordinary West Virginians used to look to Washington with something close to reverence. It was a partner in good times, a lifeline in bad ones, a powerful ally against the big corporations that came for its coal and timber. By some measures, West Virginia relies more on federal money than any other state.

But increasingly, it also has become an extreme example of the hostility that shows up in every national poll when people are asked how they feel about the federal government. Many here now speak of Washington as an enemy that threatens their economy and their way of life, that traps them into dependency.

“Washington’s 100 percent against us,” said M.E. Walker, a retired road builder who lives in Pence Springs in Summers County. “They don’t like our jobs. They don’t like our attitudes.”

Political alienation

Rep. Nick J. Rahall II attends a parade in Danville in July. The state’s lone House Democrat is facing what may be his most difficult reelection contest. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

What’s happening in West Virginia runs against the tide nationally, and even more, against the pull of its own history.

West Virginia exists as a state because it broke away from Virginia in 1863 and refused to join the confederacy. 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.

West Virginia’s flip from Democratic to Republican

Since the 1960s, West Virginia has elected a panoply of Democratic candidates into office. Though the southern state has long favored Democrats, it appears to be realigning with its more conservative neighbors in recent years.


← More Republican

More Democratic →

Sources: Federal Election Commission, U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Clerk. Graphic: Kennedy Elliott / Washington Post.

“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.

Rahall has emphasized his differences with the Democratic president over coal, abortion, guns, same-sex marriage and immigration. But he said that the national party’s stances are a growing liability for Democrats here, and asked, “How many more red flags do I have to have on my back?”

A turning point also may be ahead for the state legislature, where Republicans picked up 11 House seats in 2012 and need just five more to win a majority. It they can do so, it would be the first time they have run either chamber since 1932.

“I remember the Senate when there was only one Republican, who was by definition the minority leader,” Rockefeller said. Now, 10 of 34 state senators are.

A big Republican year up and down the ballot would be proof that West Virginia’s political DNA has been altered.

“This 2014 election will be something to watch in West Virginia,” Manchin said. “Generation after generation, they voted Democratic because their daddy did and their granddad. That will be broken. You can see that breaking now. You have to earn people’s votes.”

That is, if they even show up to vote. Last year, West Virginia was the only state where turnout was lower than 50 percent. Among the young, it dropped by half from 2008, to less than 23 percent.

Dependence — and disdain

Steve Acrees, left, and others listen as Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R) speaks at the West Virginia Republican Victory Picnic and Rally in Beckley. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

In this state, voter disillusionment does not stem from the big-vs.-small-government debate that rages in Washington. Nor has the tea party movement taken root here to the degree it has elsewhere.

West Virginians “don’t have to like government, but they really need it,” said Rockefeller, the Standard Oil Co. founder’s great-grandson who came to Kanawha and Boone counties as a VISTA volunteer in 1964.

Flinty self-reliance is a source of pride; the state’s official motto is “Mountaineers are always free.” But with a population that is older, sicker and poorer than most, West Virginia also depends more on government checks than any other state.

Nearly 27 percent of West Virginia’s personal income derives from transfer payments, including retirement, disability, medical, unemployment and welfare benefits, according to statistics compiled by Timothy Parker of the U.S. Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service. (Mississippi ranks second, at 25 percent.)

Photos: How W. Va. moved to the GOP

The state has become an extreme example of the hostility that shows up in every national poll when people are asked how they feel about the federal government. Click on the image to view the gallery.

Fifty-three years after presidential candidate John F. Kennedy spoke on the steps of the Wyoming County courthouse in Pineville, another display appeared there: a monument bearing the Ten Commandments. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The day after Kennedy was inaugurated, he fulfilled a campaign promise made in West Virginia to use his first executive order to begin the food stamp program. Its first vouchers went to a laid-off miner and his wife from Paynesville, who had 13 children still living at home.

Almost one in five West Virginians receives food stamps today.

Everywhere are reminders of how much West Virginia relies on Washington, and how much Washington has tried to do for West Virginia. One cannot go far without seeing a building or driving on a road named for the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D), the most influential West Virginian ever.

“One man’s pork is another man’s job. Pork has been good investment in West Virginia,” said Byrd, who died in 2010. “You can look around and see what I’ve done.”

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper put it this way: “When people thought of the federal government, they thought of Robert C. Byrd.”

Not anymore.

As Pineville’s defiant display of the Ten Commandments suggests, cultural issues are one reason conservative West Virginians feel so estranged from Washington. The monument went up the week that the U.S. Supreme Court made two landmark rulings that strengthen the cause of same-sex marriage.

Manchin’s gun proposal also has been a hot topic. Mike Caputo (D), majority whip of the House of Delegates, said he got into a debate about it at a recent picnic. One of his neighbors, a 90-year-old woman, told him, “Joe’s after my guns.”

Racism also may play a role in the changing political dynamic of a state where 94 percent of the population is white. Here as elsewhere, people traffic in false rumors that the nation’s first black president is a Muslim and that he was born in Africa.

But even assuming prejudice roils beneath the surface, it cannot explain the tectonic shift in West Virginia’s political allegiances. Race was not a reason voters rejected Democratic presidential candidates in 2000 and 2004, or why Obama’s Election Day total slid seven percentage points from 2008 to 2012.

A culture of coal

Ivory Marcum of Welch — with his son, Andy, 3 — wants to work at a coal mine, but those jobs are hard to come by. He does odd jobs instead. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Leaders in both parties say that what has happened to politics in West Virginia begins with what has happened to coal — an industry that employs about 32,000 in the state, fewer than half the number of jobs it provided in 1976.

Although there always have been booms and busts, people “are convinced that President Obama wants to destroy the coal industry, and that’s what’s driving our politics,” said Raamie Barker, a top adviser to Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

In purely economic terms, coal and the industries it feeds no longer dominate. Nor do the labor unions that gave the Democrats so much of their political muscle. In 1997, Weirton Steel was West Virginia’s largest private employer; every year since then, Wal-Mart has held that spot — as it does nationally.

But coal has a grip on the state’s psyche and identity that cannot be quantified by economic statistics. Mining brought generations of strivers to the mountains, where they took on dirty, deadly work. By the 1970s, those were high-paying jobs; even today, with overtime, a miner can make six figures.

“You can’t hardly talk to anybody who doesn’t say, ‘My great-grandfather was a coal miner,’ ” said West Virginia Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette. “It’s not uncommon for anybody, anywhere to look back at a time when things were different and long for those days.”

Kevin Richardson’s father has been a coal miner for 42 years — one tough and determined enough to have gone back into the ground after a double knee replacement. The younger Richardson, who lives in Glen Daniel, is a Wal-Mart manager.

“Driving from my house, it used to be you would pass four coal mines. Now you pass one,” he said of his daily commute to the store. Richardson also has noticed that customers lately buy only essentials: “We feel the crunch of it. It’s cutting into everybody’s pay.”

For all the clouds, West Virginia’s economy is not without its bright spots.

The northern part of the state has a booming energy industry, fed by the Marcellus shale formation, which is believed to hold nearly half the nation’s proved reserves of natural gas. Ethane, used in 90 percent of consumer goods, offers the promise of reviving manufacturing.

Meanwhile, the rapidly growing eastern panhandle has been transformed into a bedroom community of the recession-resistant Washington metropolitan area. And, because of Byrd, the FBI’s largest division is now located just outside Stonewall Jackson’s birthplace of Clarksburg, employing 2,600 government workers and several hundred contractors. But not much of that new prosperity has reached into coal country, isolated as it is by barriers of geography and culture.

Coal jobs are disappearing for many reasons: depletion of the most accessible and productive reserves; mechanization; competition from cheaper energy sources; a push for cleaner, renewable ones.

Government is also to blame — and an easier target for politicians and industry alike.

Appalachian coal “is not a humongously wonderful investment for coal companies,” Rockefeller said. “So you see them moving more and more toward western coal, or toward natural gas. And all the while, complaining about the EPA and Lisa Jackson,” a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Indeed, given how often Jackson has been invoked in political speeches and ads, she may have greater name identification in West Virginia than in Washington. Her successor, Gina McCarthy, can expect the same.

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D) chats with Roderick Green, 27, Babs Bridgeman, 60, and Tiara Toney, 27, at the State Fair in Lewisburg. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The administration wants to hold power plants to greenhouse gas standards that cannot be met with commercial coal technology. It has proposed $8 billion in loan guarantees for “clean” fossil energy projects, but has not approved a single one. And a court battle is raging over the EPA’s 2011 decision to retroactively veto a coal mining permit for Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County.

“There’s no question there’s a war on coal,” said Rahall, the congressman, echoing what has become a popular catchphrase for politicians of both parties.

Added Capito, the GOP Senate candidate: “A lot of people want to live and work in the state they were born and raised in, and want their family to have those opportunities. They see there is a trend out there by this White House to pick winners and losers, and that we’ve been on the losing end. And they don’t like it.”

Even some who were initially willing to give Obama the benefit of the doubt say they no longer do.

Ashley Marsh of Crab Orchard has been a miner for more than 25 years. “I voted for him before,” he said of the president. “But this time, I ran straight Republican. If the coal mining slides in this state, so will everybody else.”

“We’re only a speck in this world,” added his wife, Kathy. “Other than Senator Manchin, we don’t see anybody fighting for us. But he can only do so much.”

As president, Obama has visited West Virginia twice — to speak at a memorial for 29 coal miners who perished in a 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, and later that year to attend Byrd’s funeral.

Belinda Biafore, vice chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party’s executive committee, says of the national party, “I think they just kind of write West Virginia off and do what they have to do to win without us.”

Red and blue make green

“Washington’s 100 percent against us,” says M.E. Walker, 54, of Pence Springs, shown with grandson Brayden Walker Williams, 5. In the background are Brayden’s mother, Megan, 27, and aunt, Katie, 18. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

Neither the red label nor the blue really fits in a state that manages to be both unique and emblematic.

Byrd was often quoted as saying about West Virginia: “It is the most Southern of the Northern; the most Northern of the Southern; the most Eastern of the Western; and the most Western of the Eastern states.”

On the evening of July 3, the Christ Temple Church in Huntington was rocking with patriotic hymns. One, written by members of the church, was titled, “God Save Our Country Once Again.”

Mayor Steve Williams strode onstage with a Bible in his right hand, and a bound copy of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence in the other.

“Our independence day is on Easter Sunday,” he said, and held the Bible aloft. “This is our Declaration of Independence.”

In West Virginia, Democratic politicians feel comfortable saying things like that.

Williams is new in the mayor’s job. Last year, he easily beat a Republican incumbent.

“Oddly enough, I was the one who was saying, ‘Let’s lower taxes, and let’s reduce the cost of government,’ ” Williams said. “You look throughout the state, and it was almost as though everybody separated the top of the ticket from those of us who know West Virginia.”

Republicans have yet to find a way to translate the state’s anger at national Democrats into a backlash closer to home. And they acknowledge that they still lack a deep bench, a crop of up-and-coming talent in their party.

Last year in Fayette County, where GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won by more than 20 percentage points, only one Republican was running for any local office. A candidate for magistrate, he lost.

“We haven’t had a Republican candidate win since 1928,” said Fayette County Republican Party Chairman Gary Lilly. “My goal as chairman is to see one before I die.”

To find a credible candidate to run in what they consider a winnable House race against Rahall, Republicans had to persuade State Sen. Evan Jenkins (Cabell County) to switch parties.

Democrats, and some Republicans, say the right kind of Democrat could still win West Virginia in a presidential election.

“Bill Clinton would still carry the state, and Hillary Clinton will, if she’s the nominee,” said John Doyle, a Democrat who for two decades represented Harpers Ferry and Shepherdstown in the House of Delegates.

A future beyond coal

Northfork Mayor Marcus Wilkes (D), left, and Ron West and Mary Wingler dine and place their orders with Olivia Kennedy at the Sterling Drive-In in Welch. West and Wingler are Democrats but said they did not vote for President Obama in 2012. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

There may be a different kind of future coming to the coal fields. But more and more, people ask whether government is helping to get there or holding back progress.

Marcus Wilkes’s full-time job is as a corrections officer at the McDowell County prison. Wilkes is also the mayor of Northfork, a town of just over 400 in McDowell County at the bottom tip of the state.

Last year, he became the first African American to hold that post, beating an incumbent by 63 to 33, give or take some disputed ballots.

“Right behind us is a coal operation. It’s owned by the Russians,” Wilkes said. “If this is a major coal-producing county, where is the prosperity?”

With about one-third of its citizens living below the poverty line, McDowell is the poorest county in West Virginia, one of the most impoverished in the nation. Its population has shrunk from nearly 100,000 in 1950 to about 21,000 today. Boarded-up storefronts are a reminder that this was once an area of bustling coal towns. A forlorn house trailer sits on what used to be a baseball field.

But hope comes riding into Northfork every Thursday and Friday night. That’s when the streets jam with trucks hauling all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes. They are there to ride the spectacular 600-mile Hatfield McCoy Trail System, all of it on privately owned property leased from coal companies and run by a quasi-state agency the legislature created in the 1990s.

In a parking lot around the cluster of cabins at one new resort were trucks with license plates from Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, Ohio, Maryland, even Texas.

“These people come here. They want to spend their money. They come to town, and they have no decent places to eat,” Wilkes said.

As he drove his red Dodge pickup through town and into the hollows, the mayor talked of what he imagines someday — not only restaurants, but a visitors center, bed-and-breakfasts, handicraft boutiques, a farmers market.

And a new entrepreneurial class of Northfork citizens.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” Wilkes said.

It will require cultural as well as economic changes.

In April, Shawn Penwarden, having lost his job hauling coal, opened an ATV repair shop in Northfork. He has been busy enough to need a few more employees. But he said he’s having difficulty hiring because people want to be paid in cash. They fear working on the books might risk their government benefits.

“People only do two things here. They either work in coal for $100,000 a year or they get a check from the government,” Penwarden said. “It’s a way of life. So do we blame the people or the government?”

“I would blame the government,” he added, “but I don’t have any ideas how to reverse the trend.”

There’s one thing, however, that won’t work, Wilkes said. “We can’t sit around waiting for the coal jobs to come back.”

Alice Crites contributed to this story.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Shawn Penwarden's name. This version has been updated.