West Virginia Heads Down a Political Road Less Taken

November 16, 2004


CHARLESTON, W. Va., Nov. 12 - On the eve of the presidential election, Democrats here could practically taste victory for Senator John Kerry.

Senator Robert C. Byrd, the party's revered elder statesman, headlined boisterous rallies that seemed to augur a huge Democratic turnout. Coal miners and steel workers pounded on doors urging loyalists to vote. All that remained was for Democrats, who outnumber Republicans in this state by two to one, to do what they have done so many times before: vote the party line.

But they did not. President Bush trounced Mr. Kerry by 13 percentage points, doubling his margin of victory in West Virginia from 2000 and becoming the first Republican since William McKinley to win this once reliably Democratic state twice.

The Democrats' bad news did not end there. Kenneth Hechler, a 90-year-old former congressman, was soundly defeated for secretary of state by a little-known Republican, Betty Ireland, despite outspending her by more than two to one. Justice Warren McGraw of State Supreme Court, a fiery populist, was thrashed in his bid for re-election by a novice Republican candidate backed by business groups and coal operators. And three Democratic state senators were unseated by Republican insurgents.

"I'd love to say I saw it all coming," said Gov. Bob Wise, a Democrat who is stepping down at the end of the year. "But I thought we were going to win."

Drawn by a powerful conservatism on issues like abortion, gun control and same-sex marriage, and fed up with the state's shrinking population and perpetually high poverty rates, voters are leaving the Democratic Party in substantial numbers, party leaders say.

The defections have so alarmed the state chairman, G. Nicholas Casey Jr., that he sent a memorandum to county leaders this week demanding that they pledge loyalty to the party or resign their positions.

"We need to step back and look hard at our party," Mr. Casey wrote. "The Republican Party has become a force and it is a unified force."

The Republicans have indeed made significant strides, gaining 15 seats in the Legislature since 2002 and out-registering Democrats this year by nearly two to one. Their work paid off on Election Day, as the party's diverse strands came together with a fervor few thought possible, uniting evangelical Protestants with Roman Catholics, union members with Chamber of Commerce businessmen.

Many Democrats now agree with political analysts who say the state will go the way of Kentucky and Tennessee, with Democrats continuing to control local governments but struggling to hold onto the Legislature and facing uphill battles in presidential races.

"This election will make it respectable to be a Republican," said Andy Gallagher, Justice McGraw's campaign manager.

To be sure, the Republicans did not score a clean sweep. The Democratic candidate for governor, Secretary of State Joe Manchin, won with more than 60 percent of the vote.

But in many ways, Mr. Manchin was the exception that proved the rule: He is one of the most conservative Democrats to win the job in decades, staunchly opposing abortion, gun control and gay marriage, and advocating a low-tax, pro-business economic platform.

"This state is not going to revert back to people voting blindly for Democrats," Mr. Manchin said in an interview. "We're going to have to earn their votes. And if we don't, we'll continue to get picked off one by one."

Democratic leaders argued that Mr. Hechler lost because he was too old and that Justice McGraw was vastly outspent by a phalanx of business groups led by the Chamber of Commerce and Don L. Blankenship, chief executive of Massey Energy, who poured $3.5 million of his money into an advertising campaign harshly attacking Justice McGraw.

But they were deeply dismayed by Mr. Kerry's showing. Four years ago, Vice President Al Gore all but ignored the state, and his loss could be written off to neglect. This year, Democrats were out in force for months registering voters, recruiting volunteers and defending Mr. Kerry's positions on gun control, coal mining and steel tariffs. Yet the margin of defeat grew.

"The Democrats did everything right by the playbook and still got blasted," said Robert Rupp, a professor of political science and history at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

The difference this year, Democrats and analysts said, was the fervent activity of conservative churches. For months, Bush campaign workers recruited support from pastors, registered church members and distributed literature after Sunday services. It was the kind of work unions have long done for Democrats, only this time the church vote outpaced the labor vote, Democrats said.

"Some say the religious right is more powerful than labor ever was, and I think there's a lot of truth to that," said State Delegate Mike Caputo, a Democrat who works for the United Mine Workers of America.

Mr. Casey and other leaders of the state party said the Democrats had already begun an outreach program to churches, arguing that most Democrats are as much against abortion, gay marriage and gun control as are Republicans.

But the erosion of Democratic support is as much due to demographic shifts as to the religious right, analysts said. The eastern panhandle abutting Maryland, long a Republican stronghold, is the fastest-growing part of the state, becoming an affluent bedroom community to Washington. Mr. Bush won handily there.

At the same time, the coal fields of the south, a Democratic redoubt for decades, have steadily lost population as mining jobs have dried up and young people have moved away.

Raleigh County, the home of Mr. Byrd and Representative Nick J. Rahall II, also a Democrat, exemplifies the shifting tides. Though Democrats still outnumber Republicans there, Mr. Bush took 60 percent of the vote and a Republican won a magistrate's seat for the first time in nearly eight decades.

Cultural issues were important there, but so was the economy. Joe Long, the chairman of the Raleigh County Republican Committee, said that Republicans hammered at state Democrats all year for presiding over decades of job losses, low income and high poverty rates.

"We've been preaching that single-party rule has hurt West Virginia," Mr. Long said. "People are listening, finally."

The Republicans are already suffering growing pains, evidenced in an internal struggle that led to the firing of the party's executive director after the election. But they are confidently looking to challenge Mr. Byrd in 2006 and take control of the Legislature in 2008, goals that no longer seem impossible.

Kris Warner, chairman of the state Republican Party, said Mr. Byrd was hurt by his harsh attacks against Mr. Bush, both in a book and on the stump. The senator's age may also be an issue; Mr. Byrd will be 88 when he is up for re-election.

"He has lost his edge," Mr. Warner said of Mr. Byrd, who has been in the Senate since 1959.

Aides to Mr. Byrd said he planned to run again in 2006. In an e-mail message, Mr. Byrd pulled no punches on Mr. Bush, calling his administration dangerous. But he also warned that many Democrats had begun to question where the party stood on core issues.

"I have always known where the values of West Virginia lie - patriotism, faith, family, opportunity, a clear sense of right and wrong, and justice," Mr. Byrd said. "The Democratic Party needs to get back to reflecting those core principles."