In West Virginia, a Changed Political Landscape

2012 Presidential Election in West Virginia
2012 Presidential Election in West Virginia

Less than a month after being re-elected to the House of Representatives for the seventh time in West Virginia’s second congressional district, Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito (R) announced that she plans to run for the United States Senate seat currently held by Senator Jay Rockefeller (D). Senator Rockefeller was first elected to the United States Senate in 1984 and has been re-elected with relative ease since then.

West Virginia spent much of the twentieth century being a stronghold for Democrats. In the seventeen Presidential elections from 1932 to 1996, West Virginia only voted for the Republican candidate three times. The last time a Republican was elected to the United States Senate for a full term in the state was when they elected W. Chapman Revercomb in 1942. Of the six elected positions in the executive branch, five of them are Democrats. Senator Joe Manchin was also recently elected to a full term with more than 60% of the vote.

But things have changed in West Virginia over time.

The last time the state voted for a Democratic candidate for President was 1996, and the state’s Congressional make-up has since gone from three Democrats and zero Republicans to two Republicans and one Democrat, Nick Rahall, who has seen his margin of victory decline over recent elections. From 1932 to 2004, one of the bluest counties in the state, Logan County, voted for the Democratic candidate in every single Presidential election, even during Richard Nixon’s blowout in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. This changed with the nomination of Barack Obama, where in 2012 we saw the Democratic candidate lose by a 40% margin. Barack Obama even lost the county during the primaries where he was basically uncontested to a convicted felon by a 10% margin.

In 2014, Senator Rockefeller will be 77 years old. In addition to his age, people speculated that he wouldn’t be running for a sixth term when he went against the state delegation by defending an effort by the Obama Administration to reduce mercury emissions from coal power plants. Politics in West Virginia over the past two election cycles have been filled with claims that Democrats are waging a “war on coal” and Rockefeller’s speech on the Senate floor gave the coal industry more fuel to add to the fire.

The question whether Rockefeller would seek re-election was put to rest earlier this month when he announced that he will not run for re-election in 2014. This results in what will be the first wide open full-term Senate race in West Virginia in nearly thirty years. The significant shift in the state’s party allegiance is definitely going to be felt. Earlier this week, a poll conducted by Harper Polling was released, showing Shelley Moore Capito with a demanding lead. When polled against 3rd District Congressman Nick Rahall, Capito leads him 50% to 31%. Against Carte Goodwin, the individual who held the late Robert C. Byrd’s vacant seat prior to the 2010 special election, Capito leads 53 percent to 19%.

Polls this early are typically nothing more than things to determine name recognition. In the Capito-Rahall race, 18% said they were not sure about who they would support. Between Capito and Goodwin, 27% said they were not sure. With numbers that large who are unsure, there’s definitely room for the race to tighten, but there’s no disputing that West Virginia’s political leanings have changed and that this will likely be one of the most closely-watched Senate races of next year’s mid-terms.


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