When West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller formally announced his decision to quit the Senate on Friday, he opened the next chapter in one of the few true historic shifts taking place in American politics. Even before his announcement, Republicans were eyeing his seat as a prime pickup opportunity, a reflection of the ascendance of the Republican Party in Appalachia, a shift in which working-class white voters who have reliably cast ballots for Democratic politicians for the better part of a century are moving inexorably, and perhaps permanently, toward the Republican Party.
That's because in Appalachia, coal is still king.
Last June, Senate observers were surprised when Rockefeller, a long-time backer of his state's dominant industry, stood on the Senate floor lambasting energy companies for launching "carefully orchestrated messages that strike fear into the hearts of West Virginians." He attacked coal operators for denying the need to address climate change, and for resisting a lower-carbon environment.
Those familiar with Appalachian politics were surprised too -- that Rockefeller, by attacking King Coal, had effectively announced his retirement that day.
The shift away from the Democratic Party underway today isn't the first time Appalachia has changed its political identity. After the Civil War, coal country was reliably Republican. During the war, West Virginia itself seceded from the Commonwealth of Virginia to stay with the Republican Union. Between 1896 and 1928, West Virginia voted as Republican as Northeastern states; it voted Democratic only once, in 1912.
But the Coal Wars of the 1920s helped boost a mine workers' union that grew in size and political influence. And while the union dominated, it supplied a reliable stream of votes to the Democratic Party. Between 1932 and 1996, Republicans won West Virginia only in 1956, 1972 and 1984, all amid national waves. Kentucky, where the coal industry is equally powerful, was similarly a reliably Democratic state; it voted Republican only twice between 1900 and 1952, and it cast its electoral votes for Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in both 1992 and 1996.
"Appalachia, particularly Kentucky, East Tennessee and Pennsylvania, were very Republican after the Civil War and remained that way for a very long time," said Mike Duncan, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a native of Kentucky coal country. "The mining wars and unionization flipped them hard Democrat in the 1930s."
Clinton was the last Democrat to win either state. During his administration, the environmental movement began to gain traction and importance within the Democratic Party, and the party itself gravitated more toward the liberal coasts than it had previously. And the Environmental Protection Agency, a bureau created by a Republican president, began asserting its will more broadly, issuing regulations that the coal industry opposed. That combination of factors, Republicans and Democrats alike agree, conspired to give the impression of a Democratic Party that no longer had Appalachia's interests at heart.
"When you attack guns and coal, you're attacking what they in the mountains consider their birthright," said Jim Cauley, a Democratic strategist and Kentucky native who managed President Obama's campaign for U.S. Senate in 2004. "They'll feel like you're attacking their culture."
The evidence of old Appalachia is still present: 56 percent of Kentucky voters are registered Democrats; 54 percent of West Virginia voters are Democrats. But the evidence of new Appalachia is presenting itself in every subsequent election: In 2010, Republicans won two of the state's three Congressional seats, the first time they claimed a majority since the Reagan wave of 1980. In 2012, an otherwise good year for Democrats, Republican Andy Barr defeated Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler in a Lexington-based district in Kentucky, and West Virginia's Democratic attorney general lost his re-election bid.
That same year, President Obama won just 30 of the 421 counties that belong to the Appalachian Regional Commission, according to a National Journal analysis of election results. Just one of those 30 counties, Elliott, was in Kentucky; Obama lost every county in West Virginia. He only came within ten points of Republican nominee Mitt Romney in three of the state's 55 counties.
"The Democratic Party has lost touch with the working class Appalachian person," Duncan said. Those voters, he added, were the foundation of what Richard Nixon called the Silent Majority.
Democrats still have a presence in Appalachia. The governors of Kentucky and West Virginia are both Democrats, and Democrats control three of the two states' four legislative chambers (Republicans won control of the Kentucky state Senate in 2000). But the region's conservatism means an Appalachian Democrat is much different from a Democrat from another part of the country; as he sought re-election in 2012, Sen. Joe Manchin ran an advertisement in which he literally shot Democratic-backed cap and trade legislation with a rifle.
Rockefeller's retirement opens another opportunity for Republicans to grow their burgeoning Appalachian stronghold. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, the daughter of the governor whose three terms bookended Rockefeller's in the 1970s and 1980s, announced she would run for the seat even before Rockefeller dropped out.
The arc of history changes some things and leaves others strangely intact. Appalachia has moved from Republican to Democratic to Republican again over the course of post-Civil War America, because even in the era of trans-Canadian pipelines, oil fracking and renewable energies, King Coal still reigns supreme.