Natalie TennantThis analysis follows several prior posts focusing on key Senate races upcoming in 2014.  The last published pieces hit on Louisiana, Arkansas and Montana.  Today this piece will analyze West Virginia, a state that has retained its Democratic roots at the local level, even in the age of Obama, but turned almost fully to the GOP at the federal level.

West Virginia’s history dates back to the Civil War, where its Northern roots drove local legislators to declare their allegiance to the Union and abandon Virginia’s support of the Confederacy.  Despite this however the state has always been pulled to support conservative Democrats through the decades, much as the rest of the Confederacy.  Unlike fairly unusual Southern states such as Kentucky and Arkansas, that have been less uniform in following the Southern trend to the GOP, West Virginia is fairly typical of most Southern states in recent years.  Its early history not so much.

The first time the state turned to the GOP at the Presidential level in modern history was 1956 with Eisenhower’s reelection.  The state voted for Kennedy in 60 and easily for Johnson in 64.   In 1968 in Nixon swept to victory followed by another win in 1972.  Not surprisingly Carter carried the state in 76 while also carrying the rest of the South.  In 1980 the state’s allegiance to Southern Democrats showed when it voted for Carter by 4% over Reagan (one of only five states to do so).  In 1984 however Reagan beat Mondale.  Yet again, in 1988 the state bucked a national and Southern trend and voted for Dukakis over Bush.  In both 92 and 96 Clinton carried the state by double digit margins.  Republican struggles in the state at the Presidential level finally ended when GW Bush beat Al Gore, then John Kerry in 2004 by the largest margin a Republican had ever carried the state.  In 2008 John McCain carried the state by the same margin as Bush and in 2012 the state showed its modern GOP leanings at the federal level by giving Northerner Mitt Romney 62% of its vote.  Yet even as the state was giving Romney 62% of the vote in 2012 it kept a Democratic Governor and Democratic majorities in the legislature.  It also reelected one Democrat and two Republicans to represent its Congressional delegation.

Unlike most Southern states after Reconstruction, West Virginia was a fairly Republican state.  But as migration patterns sent Northerners back to the North and Virginians into the state its political allegiances began to shift.  By the time FDR ran in 1932 the state was as loyal to the Democratic party as the Deep South.  Throughout the FDR years the state GOP had a small presence.  GOP state legislators were in the single digits and for two consecutive cycles the GOP did not run a candidate for Governor.  The state was so Democratic it bucked national trends and waves as evidenced by its votes for Stevenson (52), Carter (80), and Dukakis (88).

In more recent years however the state has followed a trajectory similar to other Southern states (though at a slower level).  The Democratic Party’s move to represent women, minorities, young voters and urban dwellers has left the mostly rural and white voters of the state with little choice but to vote for Republicans.   Even the state’s sizable union presence of fiscally liberal voters has trended towards the GOP.  The Democratic Party also used to run a fair number of Southern candidates for President (Carter, Clinton) but has increasingly turned to Midwestern or Northern liberals.

It should be mentioned the state has consistently had a sizable number of Northerners even as migration patterns drove some North.  But these voters were always outnumbered by culturally conservative Democrats.  These Democrats were so culturally conservative they stuck with the party’s Presidential nominee even when he disagreed with their positions such as Dukakis in 88 (death penalty anybody).

All of this connects to how West Virginia has behaved electorally in the new century.  The state has consistently elected Democrats for Governor in each election (though by slim margins) and Democrats maintain a strong majority in the legislature.  But GOP Presidential victories have started to translate to down-ballot federal races.  In 2010, Republicans captured two of the states’s three Congressional districts for the first time in history.  Despite this, the same year popular Governor Joe Manchin (D) successfully ran to replace the late Senator Robert Byrd.  In 2012 a Democrat ran and won to succeed Manchin as Governor but Republicans held their Congressional delegation advantage.

In early 2013 long-time Democrat Jay Rockefeller announced he was not running for reelection.  Republicans immediately enticed Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito to run for the open seat.  They had also tried to get her to run against Manchin in 2010 for Byrd’s seat but she declined.  Capito is socially moderate and fiscally conservative and an excellent fit for the statewide electorate.  Democrats scrambled for a candidate for months until they found a suitable nominee in Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

This is the state of play as the 2014 election looms.  Capito’s roots in the state run deep.  Her father was a six-term Republican Congressman from the state and two-term Governor (one of the few of both).  When Capito ran for Congress in 2000 she capitalized on those roots.  Since her election in 2000 Capito has never faced a tough reelection.  Tennant, the state’s Secretary of State since 2009, does not have the same family roots but she did grow up in a small, rural community.  Tennant also ran in the 2012 Democratic primary for Governor to replace Manchin but finished a disappointing third.

On paper Tennant looks like a great fit for the state’s culturally conservative Democratic lean.  But the Republican presence at all levels of governance has grown since 2000.  Consider that after the 2012 election Democrats had a 54-46 edge in the state House and a 25-9 edge in the state Senate.  However, after the 2000 elections Democrats had a 75-25 edge in the state House and a 28-6 edge in the state Senate.  Moreover, Capito’s family/political roots and geographical representation give her advantages Tennant does not have.

Historically, the center and Southern edges of the state have been the most reliably Democratic areas of the state.  In fact, Nick Rahall, the lone Democrat of the state’s Congressional delegation hails from the region.  We can see this by looking at the 2012 Senate and Gubernatorial maps by county.  Raese won only a few counties in the northern reaches of the state while Maloney did best in the North of the state.  In 2010, when Manchin ran for Byrd’s open Senate seat the same map largely appeared.

Capito’s district is nestled in the center of the state meaning that she could peel off Democratic voters from Tennant.  She also is sufficiently moderate to attract Northern business Republicans.  Tennant, despite holding a statewide post has low name ID.  Culturally she connects with the state but she will be running against a political dynasty in the state.  This does not mean she cannot win but it is yet another factor complicating her candidacy.

The budget shutdown is sure to have an effect on the race as is Obamacare.  Tennant, like Grimes in Kentucky and Nunn in Georgia can claim they had nothing to do to the law but they are tied to it by their partisan affiliation.  The President’s approval ratings in the state are below 30% and in 2012 he failed to win 60% of the statewide primary vote despite facing a convicted felon from another state as his only challenger.  How this plays in the race is uncertain but it has to be a drag on Tennant’s candidacy,

Capito’s cash reserves are far in excess of Tennant.  Capito has so far avoided a primary challenge from a more conservative alternative allowing her to marshal her resources for the general.  Tennant also does not face a primary opponent but she does not have the donor connections that Capito has.

Early polling has shown Capito with varying leads and running strongest in the North and Central regions of the state. Most disconcerting for Tennant is that in a early PPP survey, Capito is getting 30% of the Democratic vote and doing well with Independents and Republicans.

West Virginia’s Democratic lean has faded dramatically since the dawn of the new millennium.  For Democrats this has posed a complication at the federal level.  Joe Manchin had the fortune of being a popular Governor running against a subpar GOP opponent in 2010 and 2012.  Democratic margins in gubernatorial elections have also been getting slimmer.  In 2014 the national environment will at best be neutral for Democrats and at worst, fully against them as Obamacare is implemented and spending becomes a front and center campaign issue.  Tennant could surprise and overcome these challenges but I would not bet on it.

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