GovernorJoe Manchin (D)
SenatorsRobert Byrd (D)
Jay Rockefeller (D)
- 2 D, 1 R
Almost heaven—that’s what the song says about West Virginia. And there’s something to it, at least in the minds of West Virginians who have never lost their sense of hope or their affection for the hills and mountains that make this the most unhorizontal state in the nation. Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, working in a shipyard in Baltimore in 1944, painted a landscape of the mountains he was forced to leave behind (lithographs of it can be found on eBay). But West Virginia has had more than its share of tragedy and heartbreak. It was first settled by Scots-Irish immigrants, fresh from internecine fighting in the British Isles and determined to stake out homesteads where they could do as they like. The state slogan is Montani semper liberi: Mountain people are always free. It was born out of the tragedy of the Civil War, when 55 mountain counties with few slaves seceded from Virginia, and were declared a state in 1863. It has made its living most of the years since from that cruelest of minerals, coal. West Virginia is laced with coal. There are coal seams in 53 of its 55 counties and production even today, after many mines have closed, in 26 counties. Coal kept the sons of large mountaineer families here for much of the 20th century, men who would otherwise have left for big cities. Coal brought immigrants in, a few from odd corners of Europe, but more from adjacent areas of the South where the local farming economies were stagnant as West Virginia’s coal economy was booming. Fifty years ago, coal and local rock salt and brines brought the large concentration of chemical plants to the Kanawha Valley around Charleston. Steel mills and glass factories were established in the panhandle and in the Monongahela River valley, not far south of Pittsburgh.
But for many years, coal did not build a reliable economy. When America was beleaguered abroad, demand for coal increased and energy prices rose, and West Virginia boomed, during World War II (the state reached its all-time population peak of 2 million in 1950) and during the oil shocks of the 1970s. Coal changed the state’s politics too. West Virginia’s heritage from the Civil War days was Republican, though some counties tilted toward the Confederacy and the Democrats. The United Mine Workers organized most of the West Virginia mines by 1902, and there were bloody strikes in 1912-13 and 1920-21. Under the UMW’s John L. Lewis, the coal country shifted toward the New Deal Democrats, and West Virginia for more than half a century was one of the most Democratic states, deserting the national ticket only in Republican landslide years (1956, 1972, 1984) until George W. Bush carried it in 2000. Its Legislature has been controlled by Democrats since 1930. But neither Democratic administrations nor the pensions and medical benefits the UMW negotiated for retired miners were able to provide the economic growth to keep thousands of West Virginians from leaving their mountains to find work elsewhere. As miners were replaced by strip-mining machines, coal tonnage went way up but coal mine employment dropped from 22% of the state’s work force in 1950 to 10% in 1980 and to only 4% in the late 1990s. Coal mines employed 126,000 West Virginians in 1948 and 13,500 in 2002. The state’s population, 2 million in 1950, fell to 1.8 million in 2000—the largest decrease over that period, absolutely and in percentage terms, of any state. Of the state’s 55 counties, 39 had fewer people in 2007 than they did in 1950. The only big population increases over that half-century have been in the eastern panhandle, the university town of Morgantown and several Ohio River counties below Charleston and around Parkersburg. In the 2000 census, West Virginia ranked 50th among states in household income, 50th in median value of housing (but first in percentage of home ownership), 48th in percentage of adults with a high school diploma and second in percentage living in poverty. It has attracted few immigrants over the last two generations. Its population is only 3% black and 1% Hispanic (the latter the lowest of any state). In any case, the West Virginians who remained have a strong attachment to this unique state, where the accent sounds Southern and the early 20th century factories and houses look Northern, where the landscape is rural and the economy is industrial.
In the past two decades, however, West Virginia’s aging population has finally built a steadier and at least slowly growing economy. The outflow of young people over the decades has left the state with the nation’s third oldest population—the median age is older than Florida’s—and it is the only state with more deaths than births. But the number of jobs rose during most of the 1990s and 2000s, even as the number of manufacturing and underground mining jobs decreased. Unemployment has been below the national average much of the time. If West Virginia did not have a housing boom, except in a few eastern panhandle counties, it also did not have a housing bust in 2007 and 2008. And the demand for coal, despite the talk about alternative energy sources, has been robust. Government has played a role. Under Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, the state has had budget surpluses with revenues that consistently exceed projections—something few other states can claim. In his more than 50 years on the Appropriations Committee, Byrd has exceeded his career goal of channeling $1 billion of federal projects into West Virginia. Forest products are replacing coal in rural counties, health care is growing and telemarketing is growing as well. West Virginia has finally completed its interstate highway network and, in the computer age, it is no longer isolated.
One factor that has sustained West Virginia’s economy and reshaped its political attitudes has been the mountaintop mining of coal. Far fewer miners are needed for this work than in underground mining, but the pay is good and the jobs are far safer. The jobs are also highly valued in counties that have half the population they had 50 years ago. Mountaintop mining also has kept West Virginia competitive with the number No. 1 coal state, Wyoming, which has only surface mining. In October 1999, a federal judge ruled that mountaintop mining violates federal environmental laws. Byrd tried to overturn the decision in an appropriations bill, but was blocked by President Bill Clinton. The issue became important—arguably crucial—in the 2000 presidential race. Clinton opposed a ban but backed stricter regulation of the practice. Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore was caught in the middle between environmentalists who supported it and West Virginia’s then all-Democratic congressional delegation that opposed it. Republican candidate George W. Bush, spotting an opening, came out in favor of mountaintop mining and called for increased federal support of clean coal technology. Bush’s support of coal and his opposition to gun control enabled him to carry West Virginia 52%-46%, a stunning upset in a state that had not voted for a Republican in an open presidential race since 1928. Its five electoral votes were crucial: Without them, it would not have mattered who won Florida. The environmental stands that helped Gore in large East and West Coast states proved fatal to his candidacy in West Virginia.
In April 2001, the federal court decision was reversed by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court ruled that West Virginia’s mining restrictions superseded federal standards. But Bush continued to push Congress to spend billions of dollars on clean coal technology and backed import quotas to help the steel industry, still a major coal user. All this helped Bush in the 2004 election. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee, had voted against Byrd’s amendment to save mountaintop mining and for air pollution control bills that would have cut coal usage by as much as 40%. West Virginia slipped off both candidates’ target lists, and Bush ended up winning 46 of 55 counties on his way to a 56%-43% victory. Republicans also won surprise victories in races for secretary of state and the state Supreme Court. In 2008, polls suggested West Virginia might be in play if the Democratic nominee were Hillary Rodham Clinton, who won the primary here by a more than a 2-to-1 ratio. But Democrat Barack Obama had little appeal anywhere in the Appalachian chain, from western Pennsylvania southwest to Tennessee. Republican John McCain won West Virginia 56%-43%, the same margin as Bush’s, carrying 48 of 55 counties, even though in party identification Democrats led Republicans 48%-34%. Republicans just missed winning races for attorney general and a Court of Appeals seat.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
West Virginia has voted Republican in the last three consecutive presidential elections. Before that, the last times it did so were in 1920, 1924 and 1928, and it was then very much in line with the national trend. Not so in 2000, 2004 and 2008, when it has voted significantly more Republican than the national average. This divergence can be explained by two factors: culture and coal. West Virginians tend to be more religious and tradition-minded than Americans generally, more supportive of gun ownership, and more skeptical of environmental regulation that affects the economy. That leads to the issue of coal. At a time when national Democrats are bent on reducing carbon emissions to curb global warming, West Virginia has an economy that is growing enough to sustain an aging population and that depends heavily on coal. Political reporters were puzzled when Republican candidate George W. Bush targeted West Virginia in his 2000 campaign; between 1928 and 2000, the only Republican nominees it voted for were incumbents headed for landslide victories—Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, Richard Nixon in 1972, and Ronald Reagan in 1984. But Bush’s support of mountaintop mining and his promotion of clean coal technology enabled him to beat Democrat Al Gore here 52%-46% in 2000 and John Kerry 56%-43% in 2004. It also helped that about half of West Virginia voters are white evangelical Protestants and about 70% are gun owners.
In 2008, the result in West Virginia was not in doubt once Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination. Obama visited the state only twice during the primary season and not at all after clinching the nomination. Turnout was 713,000, down 6% from 2004, though well above the levels from 1988 to 2000 and far below the all-time high, 873,000 in 1952, the year Byrd was first elected to Congress. Republican John McCain beat Obama 56%-43%, and Obama carried only seven counties. McCain ran well ahead of Bush in the southern coal counties and well behind in the fast-growing eastern panhandle, some of it now officially part of the Washington D.C. metro area. McCain carried both the young and the elderly, and ran best among Generation X (ages 30 to 44). Obama carried union members by only 54%-43% and lost white evangelical Protestants 66%-34%. Thirty-two percent of voters who supported Clinton in the primary voted for McCain, one of the largest defection rates in the country.
West Virginia’s presidential primary, held in May, has not attracted much attention since 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy took on Hubert Humphrey and beat him with 61% of the vote, proving that a Catholic could carry a virtually all-Protestant state. For 2008, West Virginia Republicans chose delegates in a party convention on Super Tuesday on February 5. Thanks to some last-minute switches by McCain supporters, Mike Huckabee beat Mitt Romney 52%-47%, a result that was broadcast in the early afternoon Eastern time, which may have hurt Romney in some of the other contests held that day. Republicans also voted in the May 13 primary, two months after Huckabee’s withdrawal. Turnout was 117,000 voters, a little more than in 2004 and 2000 and well under the levels of 1980-88. McCain got 76% of the vote.
The Democratic contest was not an epic battle as in 1960, but it was hard fought nonetheless by Hillary Rodham Clinton and her former-president husband, who campaigned extensively in the state and hoped for a win that would, for once, provide her with a significant delegate edge. Obama, by contrast, appeared in the state only twice. Turnout was a robust 356,000, well over the levels in the three previous primaries, though less than in 1984, 1976 and 1972. Clinton won 67%-26%, her biggest victory except for Arkansas, and carried every county. The results were close only in Jefferson County, in the far end of the eastern panhandle. “We all know from the Bible, faith can move mountains,” Clinton said on Election Night. “My friends, the faith of the Mountain State has moved me.”
|111th Congress: 2 D, 1 R|
West Virginia’s three congressional districts, created after the state lost one House seat in the 1990 Census, were not significantly altered in redistricting after the 2000 census. The process was dominated by Democrats and the sole Republican, Shelley Moore Capito, who won an open seat narrowly in 2000, could have been harmed by a partisan redrawing of the lines. But one or both of the state’s two Democratic incumbents might also have been weakened, if not for the general election, then in a possible primary. Most state legislators, preoccupied with redrawing their own districts, were content to please all three congressional incumbents. In 2001, the Legislature, with one dissenting vote, removed Gilmer County from the 2nd District and placed it in the 1st, and removed Nicholas County from the 2nd and placed it in the 3rd. Both are Democratic counties that had no significant impact on the 2002 election results.
Projections based on 2000-08 population growth indicate that West Virginia will not lose a district in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. Democrats will control the redistricting process, but no one expects that they will try to manipulate the lines in any major way to defeat Capito.