It’s been a West Virginia political tradition: a vote for Democrats was a vote for labor.
But a shift has taken place in the Mountain State.
Voters say at one time the Democratic Party was the party for the common man. Now the same voters see the republican party as their advocate in a changing economy–where coal is dying and jobs are scarce.
Both the House and the Senate rest in the hands of Republicans, and with elections right around the corner, many voters are looking to bring back was is lost.
Joseph Lilly says he remembers when people made a living from the coal mines back in the 1940’s,
“Everybody could make a living. They had to work for it but now people would like to work but they can’t. People got them bottled up so they can’t work.”
Lilly worked in the mines of southern West Virginia , and says he remembers towns with bustling streets fueled by money from the mines.
“Oh you back through there but it’s so different now. Bramwell, West Virginia. I believe there was 14 miners that were millionaires then there was a drug store there so just anything and everything was spit and polished.”
Most political analysts say the same reason why West Virginians voted democrat, is now the same reason they are voting republican.
“Well I think coal is part of it, coal is a big part of West Virginia and South West Virginia where my mother comes from so that’s a big part of it,” said Dr. Larry Sabato.
As it stands currently, the West Virginia legislature is controlled by republicans. It’s important to mention that overall 11 counties are registered republican versus 52 counties that are registered democrat. Also, democrats still hold a 45 to 30 percent rule statewide, but to put into perspective–20 years ago it was 63 to 29 percent.
The shift from blue to red didn’t happen overnight. In every election since 2000, West Virginia has voted for a Republican nominee…
“Some people say it began in the 2000 election between Bush and Gore and people weren’t really sure it was happening until the last congressional election where the republican party did take over the State Legislature,” Dr. Jim White, political professor at Concord University.
Dr. White says one of the determining factors in this political shift is union influence.
“Many people think that’s what happened to the democratic party, a reduction in the union vote and we’ll see. Maybe unions instead of being coal miners will be predominantly service union workers, like teacher’s unions,” said Dr. White.
With a declining coal industry, union issues are not playing the same role in politics as years past.
Before 2014, Republicans hadn’t controlled the legislature since 1930, and Right to Work legislation has freed employees from Union obligations, but Lilly says he remembers when miners had to fight for their unions.
“They just bound up together, but it wasn’t in order to make more money it was so the unions would pay for everything they had.”
Coal has played a big role on the national stage as well. Hillary Clinton made headlines in coal states like West Virginia after a town-hall statement that left many current and former miners looking toward Republicans.
Dr. Sabato says the battle between red and blue in local elections often plays out on the national stage.
“If the state is blue you want to nationalize the election because you want to use Hilary Clinton’s advantages in that state, but if the state is red then obviously the republicans are going to use trump and democrats will try and localize the race so all politics is local as we always say.”
Sabato says if conditions remain the same in the mountain state, the political climate will continue to shift in favor of Republicans.
“Whether it’s the economy or social issues like gun control or abortion or something else. A lot of factors have driven them into the republican party and out of the democratic party so will that continue? I think for the foreseeable future.”