The Supreme Court Is Still Conservative and Michigan vs. EPA Showcases How

Supreme_Court_US_2010The Supreme Court undeniably tilted left this term.  It was impossible not to note how the court that ruled that money was speech in 2010, significantly weakened the Obamacare contraception mandate in 2011 and eliminated Section IV of the VRA in 2013 and further weakened campaign finance in 2014 suddenly lurched left (upholding state subsidies and supporting gay marriage).  But even though this might be the most liberal year of the Roberts court to date the court is actually far from liberal.

On Monday liberals got a reminder of this when the court upheld Oklahoma’s death penalty drug cocktail and much more importantly ruled in Michigan’s favor in Michigan vs. the EPA.  Most of the attention this session focused on Obamacare and gay marriage but Michigan vs. EPA was far more consequential and shows the court’s strong conservative bent on regulatory issues in which the public has little input to shape.

Michigan vs. EPA’s background centers on the Clean Air Act under Obama.  In early 2012 the EPA decided to start mandating that coal-fired power plants must limit their mercury emissions.  However, the cost of the rule was not evaluated until early 2015 when 21 led Republican states and several coal companies sued over the rule.  The EPA developed a cost formula that said it would cost the industry $9 billion a year but result in over $37 billion a year in health savings.

The court’s 5-4 ruling was damning to the EPA and to agencies who might try such a tactic in the future.  Writing for the majority, Justice Antoin Scalia said, “EPA must consider cost — including cost of compliance — before deciding whether regulation is appropriate and necessary.”  He further added,  “EPA refused to consider whether the costs of its decision outweighed the benefits. The agency gave cost no thought at all, because it considered cost irrelevant to its initial decision to regulate. The EPA argued it had such power over due to the Clean Air Act and that there late cost calculations were enough.  Obviously not.  And here is the lesson for those worried about the court’s lurch to the left.  It only goes so far.

A judicial philosophy and ideological split can be seen in the court today.  You have three rock solid Constitutionalist judges in Scalia, Thomas and Alito.  You have four liberals who give the government more deference than the Warren Court did and then you have Roberts and Kennedy.  Both are interesting case studies in judicial philosophies.  Kennedy has long been the swing vote on the court.  A Reagan era appointee, Kennedy has carved out a niche as a center right justice on regulatory issues and the 1st Amendment, libertarian on social issues (abortion and gay marriage) and center-left on affirmative action issues.

Roberts in some ways mirrors Kennedy.  He is as staunch a defender of the 1st Amendment as Kennedy, arguably more conservative on regulatory issues and certainly on social issues.  But Robert’s distinction is his view of Congressional deference.  For example, Kennedy wanted Obamacare’s Individual Mandate killed in 2012 despite the voters electing the people who passed the law.  But Roberts did not.  While Kennedy ruled with Roberts in Burwell last week, Roberts position never shifted as again he favored a law that was passed by elected officials.  Yet, when it has come to ending DOMA, legalizing gay marriage, overturning Michigan’s ban on Affirmative Action through the courts and even the recent Arizona redistricting case he has sided with the conservative point of view.  Robert’s seems to show more deference to voters than anything else (hence Congress).  Kennedy is more of a mixed bag.

Hence the court has three blocs.  A conservative bloc, a larger liberal bloc, and than a moderately conservative bloc strong on some issues and weaker on others.  None of this however should disguise the fact this court remains conservative.  Upholding Obamacare and enacting gay marriage cannot change the facts this court has given conservatives victories in campaign finance, contraception in Obamacare, gutting the VRA, upholding the Death Penalty and making sure regulatory agencies cannot just pick the cost of a rule out of a hat.

The Supreme Court remains conservative and that will come into play next year.  The Court has agreed to hear arguments in UT-Austin’s Affirmative Action admissions policy, put a hold on TX’s stringent abortion rules until it can be heard by the full 5th CC Appeals Court and is also likely to hear a future case on Obamacare and the President’s Executive Action on immigration.  In all cases, minus abortion, conservatives should feel like they are more likely to win than lose due to the make-up of the court and its continuous right leaning bent.

Addendum: Today, the court agreed to hear  a case brought by 10 non-union public school teachers in CA who allege their being forced to pay union dues violates their free speech rights.  Historically, more liberal courts have allowed such a thing as long as these dues are not used on political activities.  


Clinton’s Campaign Focused Like a Laser On Race

140701_POL_HillaryClintonAlabama.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlargeOn a the Tuesday after the slaying of nine, innocent black men and women in a famous South Carolina church by 21 year old Dylan Roof, Hillary Clinton spoke on race and boy did she speak loud and clear.  Speaking before the congregation of Christ the King Church just a few miles from last summer’s violent unrest in Ferguson, Clinton said, “America’s long struggle with race is far from over,” she said shortly before the prayer. “The truth is, equality, opportunity, civil rights in America are still far from where they need to be.”

Clinton knows she needs black voters in a big way.  Without them Obama would have lost Florida, Ohio and Virginia in 2012 and North Carolina in 2008.  In the President’s initial run in 08 he made direct appeals on racial issues while Clinton deferred.  Now, Clinton, recognizing she needs to win over the same voters who put Obama in office is speaking directly to them on issues that impact their community.  Continuing in her remarks at the church Clinton made a direct appeal for their votes, “If people voted for people who would represent them about these interests—that’s the way we run! It’s still not going to be easy but its going to be a whole lot easier if you elect people who actually are committed to addressing the community’s problems.”  She wasn’t done, continuing “The hardest thing to do in a campaign is to convince people to actually take the time to vote. If you don’t have to even to go to the communities that are making these demands because you know they’re not going to vote and you don’t have to pay attention them, then nothing changes.”

Clinton’s message is clear.  Republicans don’t care about you but I do.  To be fair, Clinton has much to offer blacks in her resume.  She  spent much of her legal work after leaving Yale Law School in the 1970s dealing with impoverished and African-American communities.  But she also has things to reconcile with the community.  She fully supported her husband’s strong incarceration policy as well as his 100,000 new boots (police boots) on the ground.  She also supported Stop and Frisk before opposing it.

Telling minority communities what they want to hear is nothing new for the Democratic frontrunner.  Last month in Las Vegas she fully endorsed “amnesty” and actually spoke convincingly of America as a melting pot made stronger by immigrants.  But the South Carolina shooting gave her campaign a greater degree of freedom to focus specifically on inequality, especially among blacks and on America’s dark racial past.

However, whether black Americans turn out for the former First Lady is an open question.  While she sports similar numbers among the black community in terms of support and favorable ratings as Obama there remains the very open question of whether Obama’s support among blacks was a one time thing.  Because, support for a candidate means nothing if that supporter does not go out and cast a ballot for his/her preferred candidate.

Toward that end the Clinton campaign decided to make race a central pillar of their campaign early on.  She has called on Congress to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act and extend early voting to a federal minimum of 20 days and create universal voter registration.  She has also been a staunch supporter of gun control since 2009 when she became Secretary of State.  All these positions come at a cost however.  While they are likely to increase her support among blacks and Latinos it is likely to cost her with whites and perhaps Asians.

Still, for Clinton her support from white voters seems baked into the cake.  It is hard to see her garnering less than 39% (Obama’s share in 2012) but more than him in 2008 (43%).  Turnout among minorities is far less assured.  Hence, Clinton is making race a central pillar of her campaign, regardless of the political and social consequences.


Welcome To 2015’s First Look at It’s Marquee Gubernatorial Contest: Kentucky

Democrat Jack Conway (left) and Republican Matt Bevin (right) will square off in Kentucky's 2015 gubernatorial contest.
Democrat Jack Conway (left) and Republican Matt Bevin (right) will square off in Kentucky’s 2015 gubernatorial contest.

Kentucky is now the only 0utlier in the South in terms of partisan realignment.  Despite having a deep red tint at the federal level the state is very much purple in state races.  Democrats control the state house and every statewide, Constitutional office except one.  Now, forced to defend an open Governor’s office that could change.

Democrats hoped a damaged GOP nominee, Matt Bevin (the same dude who lost to McConnell last year), would come out of a divisive four-way primary bruised and battered.  He won it by a mere 83 votes after a partial recount.  According to multiple accounts Bevin has yet to fully make amends with the party’s establishment wing and has support largely from the state’s less powerful libertarian wing (Rand Paul, Thomas Massie).

Well, according to a new poll that has not exactly happened.  The first survey out since the GOP primary finds Bevin leading Democratic AG jack Conway by a slim 38%-35% with Independent Drew Curtis taking 6%.  With Curtis taken out the race leans 40%-38% in Bevin’s favor.

Such a narrow margin is not unusual for an off-year race.  Conway has a 31-34 unfavorable rating while Bevin beats him with a 31-28 spread.  Fully 35% of voters have no opinion of Conway and 39% of Bevin.  Again, considering how early it is for the race we should not be surprised.

The results stand in stark contrast to the last poll of the general election by the Bluegrass Survey on the eve of the GOP primary.  Conway led all GOP contenders, including Bevin, by double-digits.  With the primary concluded voters apparently are reevaluating their choices.

The other tidbit from the survey is surprising and very, very worrisome for Democrats.  In EVERY, SINGLE, down-ballot Constitutional contest Democratic contenders trail.  In the Attorney General’s contest Republican Whitney Westerfield leads Steve Beshear (son of current Governor) 41%-36%.  Democratic incumbents for State Auditor and Secretary of State also trail.  Mike Harmon leads incumbent Auditor Adam Edelen 39%-33%. Republican Steve Knipper leads Democratic SofS incumbent Alison Lundergan Grimes 47%-42%.  The low-level of undecided voters in this race suggests Grimes engendered some hard feelings from voters due to her 2014 Senate run.  In the other open seat contests for Treasurer and Agriculture Commissioner the Republican leads each by 9- it’s 41%-32% for Allison Ball over Rick Nelson and 40%-31% for Ryan Quarles over Jean-Marie Lawson Spann.

The high numbers of undecided voters in every race but the SofS contest suggest some fluidity.  The power of the state Democratic machine in the state should also not be underestimated.  It is guaranteed that Andy Beshear will drastically outspend his opponent as will Allison Grimes. But if Kentucky voters have had enough of Democratic control of the state at every executive level no amount of money will make a difference.

As reported by National Journal, Conway and Democrats are attempting to distance themselves from the national party on guns, gay marriage, abortion and most importantly, coal.  It is possible that it is now impossible for Democrats to run away from the administration.  If so, Obama’s administration will have destroyed another state Democratic party.  He’s become quite adept at it.

Addendum: The survey did test hypothetical 2016 Senate match-ups and found if Paul does not win the Presidency but does run for reelection he does fairly well.

Clinton Failing to Distance Herself From Obama

hillary_clinton_efeHillary Clinton is forging her own path to the White House.  And it diverges sharply from her husband’s 1992 strategy.  Then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton ran away from his party’s liberal positions and supported positions more likely to appeal to the nation’s middle and blue-collar electoral bloc-more cops on the street, traditional marriage, etc.  Hillary Clinton has a different strategy.  Move further to the left and embrace President Obama’s progressive agenda.  The only thing she opposes him on is free trade.

This is quite a shift from the Clinton plan of 07-08.  She and her team planned to win the White House by campaigning on pragmatic centrism and experience.  A young, upstart US Senator from Illinois made sure that ship sailed.  Now, Clinton has decided to gamble on the nation’s changing demographics and fully embrace virtually every progressive policy proposal brought forth of late (some championed by the same former Senator who beat her).

Last month Hillary embraced Comprehensive Immigration Reform aka “amnesty” for illegals.  She has hinted she supports debt free college though Bernie Sanders seems to have stolen that campaign point.  She full throatily endorsed abortion rights in her campaign rollout and has moved unequivocally leftward on gay marriage.

Such policy embraces have helped Hillary fully embrace Obama’s legacy.  Yet, short of support for not repealing the ACA the President’s legacy looks increasingly mixed.  Under the President the party has been decimated at the state and local level.  For example, for the first time since the late 1980’s the GOP controls the majority of local offices in dark blue California. While the ACA did pass and remains the President’s signature domestic policy achievement other major efforts have fallen flat.  The 2010 Dodd-Frank Bill has not prevented banks from continuing to acquire toxic assets, the Fed’s o% interest rate for years has hurt millions of Americans trying to save and the centralization of student loans has not prevented student debt from eclipsing $1 trillion.

Worse, the President’s legacy on foreign policy and economic performance is far from stellar.  Highlighting such a struggle was this year’s 1st quarter GDP  report which showed the economy shrunk 0.7%.  And while the unemployment rate has fallen under Obama’s tenure it has done so at an unsteady pace.  More importantly, average wages have barely budged since Obama took office.  This is an economic legacy Hillary will have to deal with.

On foreign policy Obama’s legacy was always tied to Clinton.  Her tenure as Secretary of State under the President ensured as much.  Since OBL was killed in 2010 the President has an abysmal record.  The attack on Benghazi was only the start in 2012.  Since that time the Syrian Civil War has created a humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, the rise of ISIS has weakened the Iraq government and fueled a secretarian conflict regionwide.  The latest, a nuclear deal with Iran, looks worse the more we learn about it.  At this point the deal seems to rely more on the Iranians words than ink on the contract.

These are all the things that Clinton will have to grapple with come 2016.  Not only that but she will also have to find a way to mobilize the Obama coalition without Obama being on the ticket.  If anything, the 2010 and 2014 midterms proved how much of a challenge that can be.  With Bernie Sanders pilfering progressive support from her in the primary she will likely come out the victor but pushed so far to the left any Republican candidate looks moderate by comparison.  This will further ensure Clinton has to rely on an unreliable majority-minority, upscale-downscale coalition to win the White House while Republicans will rely on winning blue-collar voters in key swing states.

All in all, considering Obama’s pitiful legacy, Hillary’s embrace of it and her far left policy positions I have to like the GOP’s chances.


Is Pennsylvania Winnable for the GOP in 2016?

8226985069_a93f51488f_bThey are known as “reach” states.  Every Presidential cycle Republicans and Democrats talk big about their chances in these states than back off or end up losing the states by campaign’s end.  For the GOP of late, no state personifies this better than Pennsylvania.  John McCain invested heavily in the state in 2008 and in 2012 Romney made a last week push to carry the red team over the finish line.  McCain lost by 10% and Romney by 5%.

Recent 2016 Presidential analysis has focused on how narrow the playing field is for the GOP.  In a May 7th column Larry Sabato of the Crystal ball wrote that “including leaning states Democrats start with an electoral base of 247 votes and the GOP a mere 206.”  Only Virginia, Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado and Nevada were true toss-ups.  But their analysis found Pennsylvania only leaning Democrat as opposed to being solidly blue.  The GOP optimist will point to this as a sign they can compete in Pennsylvania.  Democratic strategists largely shrug it off. And why not?  Democrats can afford to.

Since the 2004 election, when Bush was the strongest Republican Presidential nominee to run in the state since his dad carried it in 88, Democrats have locked down the state in terms of voter registration.  Between 2000 and 2014 the Democratic registration grew by over 650,000 voters.  Worse, the GOP was decimated all over the state in 2006 and 2008.  None of this paints a rosy picture for GOP chances in 2016.  But there is reason to believe the GOP has a shot in the state.  To understand why we must look at the state’s recent electoral history.

As mentioned above, H.W. was the last GOP Presidential nominee to carry the state (see map here).  When Bush ran in 2004 he largely mimicked the same map but lost by 3% instead of winning by 4%.  Why?  Because of a couple of factors.  First, when HW won he garnered 31% of the vote in Philly county.  His son, despite doing well among minorities, only managed a meager 17%.  Second, the suburbs have shifted blue.  Starting in the 1992 election the urban Collar Counties started to shift light blue and the trend has only accelerated.  These dense counties used to give the GOP a buffer when it came to covering their losses in Philly.  Now, they merely add to the Democratic vote column.

Such a shift highlights the fact the parties have switched coalitions since 1988.  The GOP historically won the state by winning rural, middle PA and the suburbs.  Democrats dominated Philly and Western PA.  But since 88 the GOP position in the suburbs and Philly has eroded but improved in urban and rural SE PA.  Democrats have gotten the better of the shift though.  Even though SW PA’s urban vote went GOP for the first time since 1972 the state was called early in the night.  Again, because of Democratic strength in SE PA.

The shift in SE PA cannot be understated in its impact on the state’s leaning.  In 1988, HW received 925,220 votes from SE PA while Dukakis received 862,891 (quote that to your friends).  Fast forward to 2012 and Romney received 878,491 to Obama’s 1,450,278 votes.  From the 88 election Democrats have picked up 587,387 votes and the GOP has lost over 46,000 votes.

Still, Republicans have proven they can win the state in midterms and Presidential years even amidst this shift.  For example, in 2000 Rick Santorum won the state by 7% even as Gore won the state by 4%.  In 2004, Arlen Specter won the state by 11% even as Kerry carried it by 2.5%.  Most recently, in the 2010 midterm, the GOP dominated statewide executive offices and captured party switcher Specter’s Senate seat.  They did it by running strongly in SE PA.  Santorum and Specter did not lose a single Collar County and Toomey only lost Delaware and Montgomery Counties.

So the tempting answer for the GOP to be competitive in the state is appeal to the suburbs.  But SE PA’s suburbs are dense and diverse so the GOP would also need to fix their issues with minority voters and women generally.  Such an occurrence is not likely in one election.  So there has to be another answer. Fortunately for the GOP there is.  It will be time intensive and cost-heavy but it could work for 2016.  It relates to George Carville’s famous statement “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle. Specifically, Alabama and Pittsburgh and it relates to voter registration.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of State, and the Census estimate of current voting-age population, there are more than 1.6 million such untapped voters residing in the state.  Only 14% of them reside in Philly or Pittsburgh, a testament to Democratic success in the state.  A solid majority, 62%-38%, reside in counties Romney won and a clear majority reside in the “Alabama” of the state.

Now, no deep analysis has been done on where these voters lean or their age, etc.  It would not be a stretch to argue though these predominately rural, white and older voters would lean Republican though. So shouldn’t resources be out into the effort?  And somebody is.  The 2015 Pennsylvania registration numbers show something not seen for almost a decade,;among new voter registrations, Republicans outnumber Democrats.

This might explain why GOP leaning groups have promised to invest in the state heavily in 2016.  There is also something else to consider.  Since 2000, no Republican nominee has put serious money into the state.  Bush in 04 spent most of his resources on Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin and Florida.  In 08 McCain abandoned the state.  In 2012, Romney invested far more in Wisconsin and Iowa than he did Pennsylvania.  He still managed to finish closer in the state than either of the latter.

All this points to how competitive Pennsylvania could be in 2016.  The GOP would be served by improving in the suburbs but they likely will struggle with that in the immediate future.  Better for the party to beat the Democrats at their own game; voter registration (as they have done in IA, OH and FL since 2012).  Winning Pennsylvania would be a huge financial effort for the GOP nominee but aid by third-party groups could make it happen.  If it does, the GOP map to the White House would get a lot wider.





New Pew Survey Hints At Why Immigration Divides The GOP

DREAM actWhile the Democratic divide over trade rages in Congress the GOP’s long simmering divides over foreign policy and cultural issues fester.  But one issue has divided the GOP like no other along virtually every line, ideology, class and age.  I speak of immigration, the issue the GOP is united on in vague policy details but little else.  A recent survey from Pew highlighted major fault lines in the divide.

Generally, the GOP is united around several ideas.  First, secure the border.  Second, allow highly skilled immigrants to enter the country first.  Third, don’t let illegals jump the line under “amnesty.”  But after these details the leanings of the GOP faithful are varied. You will find some GOP Senators and Representatives supportive of ideas like the DREAM Act or allowing illegals who serve in the military to get citizenship or permanent status.  Yet, other Republicans oppose these ideas.  Such opposition can partly be laid at the feet of  the GOP moving from a middle manager party in the suburbs to a fiscally diverse party with the influx of blue-collar, older voters into the party.  These voters, mostly white, hold views to the right of the nation on immigration related issues.

For the survey’s purposes blue-collar voters were defined as falling within a certain income level and lacking a college degree. A solid 45 percent of non-college Republican partisans (including independents who lean toward the party) said that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should not even be provided legal status. Only 28 percent of college-educated Republicans agreed. There also is a divide over citizenship. Most college-educated Republicans believe the estimated 11-million plus undocumented immigrants should be allowed to apply for permanent residency (35 percent) or citizenship (31 percent). Among non-college Republicans, a combined 51 percent said the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship (30 percent) or legal status short of citizenship (21 percent).

Similarly, 45 percent of Republicans over 50, compared to only 36 percent of younger GOP partisans, think that the undocumented should not be provided any legal status. Just 25 percent of older Republicans, as opposed to 37 percent of the younger, say that the undocumented should be allowed to apply for citizenship.  In other words, younger GOP voters are more likely to favor a more liberal version of immigration reform.

Nationally, only 27 percent of all adults say the undocumented should be denied any legal status, while 42 percent said they should be able to apply for citizenship and 26 percent backed permanent residency.

The GOP divide on immigration extends far beyond the Southern border but also into legal immigration. Nationally, just 31 percent said that legal immigration should be reduced. Republican partisans who are either college-educated (at 30 percent supporting a reduction) and or younger than 50 (at 35 percent) largely tracked those views. But 42 percent of both Republicans without college degrees and those older than 50 want to reduce the legal immigration level.

The remaining non-college Republicans preferred to either maintain the current level of immigration (35 percent) or increase it (20 percent). By contrast, nearly two-thirds of college-educated Republicans would either maintain (42 percent) or increase (23 percent) current levels. Nationally, 24 percent of adults would increase legal immigration, while 39 percent would maintain the current level.

There is a marked contrast between the views of blue-collar Republicans, old/young Republicans and the general public on immigrants impacts on society. Over 51 percent of all adults agreed with the assessment “immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents.” A minority, 41 percent, took the opposite view, agreeing with the statement, “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”

College educated Republicans split with 38 percent endorsing the favorable statement and 49% the negative view.  But older, non college educated Republicans were even more negative.  Among non college educated Republicans a mere 29 percent supported the favorable statement compared to 62 percent the negative.  Among older Republicans over 50 the view was even more negative with only 23 percent endorsing immigrants strengthening America and 67 percent being a burden.  By contrast, over 3/4ths of Latinos, almost two-thirds of Millennials, 60+ percent of college educated adults and 55 percent of blacks believed immigrants benefit society.

These views have a profound impact on how the GOP approaches the issue.  More immediately, it is shaping the policy positions GOP Presidential contenders are taking on the issue.  For example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Mike Huckabee have hinted they might be open to reducing legal immigration.  Less hinting and more open about it is Rick Santorum.  Santorum has called for reducing legal immigration from 25 to 50 percent.  Yet other Republicans have taken a less restrictive approach to the issue.  Marco Rubio is against capping legal immigration and Jeb Bush is forcefully against such an idea.  Unsurprisingly, these views will appeal to different kinds of Republican primary voters.

The salience of the immigration issue in the GOP primary is unclear.  With a muddled field none of the GOP contenders have had to discuss the issue to a great degree.  This gives the ultimate GOP nominee a chance to position themselves to the middle of their party on the issue and perhaps win minority voters.  But, the threat is real a Santorum could pull the winner to the right and force the GOP nominee to try to win largely on the force of the white vote (didn’t work out so well in 2012).

Ultimately, the survey reveals deep schisms within the GOP not just on illegal but also legal immigration.  The GOP nominee will need to be able to find a satisfying middle ground to appeal to the party faithful and an increasingly diverse electorate.

What To Make Of The 2016 West Virginia Gubernatorial Election

Bill Cole, the state's first GOP Senate Majority Leader since Reconstruction, could also become the state's first GOP Governor since 2000.
Bill Cole, the state’s first GOP Senate Majority Leader since Reconstruction, could also become the state’s first GOP Governor since 2000.

Two of 2015’s three gubernatorial elections are already decided.  Republicans will dominate Louisiana (despite the budget woes Jindal has created) and the racially polarized Mississippi.  The possibly competitive state is Kentucky which despite its strong Republican bent federally has maintained a Democratic allegiance locally.  There are some competitive races in 2016 (most of the energy will be in the Presidential and Senate battlegrounds).  Of the 11 states with gubernatorial elections a specific few on the surface look competitive.  Missouri is featuring a term limited Governor, Montana has a weak, Democratic Governor and North Carolina will feature a competitive Presidential, Senatorial and Gubernatorial contest.  One state of interest stands out above the rest though, West Virginia.

West Virginia is interesting for two reasons.  First, the state had a history of backing Democratic Presidential nominees until 2000 when Bush beat Gore.  Consider the state backed Hubert Humphrey in 68.  The state also backed Carter in 76 and 80.  From 88-2000 the state supported Mondale and Clinton twice.  Only in the GOP waves of 72 and 84 did the state go red.  But since 2000 the state has overwhelmingly voted Republican for President.  But until 2008 the state still maintained a robust local Democratic Party due to ticket splitting and local partisan roots.

The second reason is the grip of the Democratic Party in the state has weakened.  In 2009 the Democratic Party had a commanding lead in the state legislature to the tune of a 28-6 edge in the State Senate and 79-21 in the State House.  The party also held every statewide, Constitutional office.  Democrats held both US Senate seats and two of three Congressional districts.  But in 2010 the party lost seats in the state legislature and a narrow contest in West Virginia-3.  Democrats lucked out when Governor Joe Manchin ran for Robert Byrd’s Senate seat, winning a special election.  In 2012 the party lost more seats in the legislature yet West Virginians split their tickets at the federal level, supporting Joe Manchin (60%) and Mitt Romney (62%).  In statewide, Constitutional offices the party held the Governorship but lost the Attorney General’s slot.  The 2014 midterms saw the bottom fall out for the party.  Natalie Tennant (D) was crushed in her run to replace Jay Rockefeller in the Senate.  Her opponent, Shelley Moore Capito did not lose a single county.  Worse, the party did not capture Capito’s open House seat, lost their lone Congressional seat held by Nick Rahall since 1977 and saw their slim majorities in the State Senate and House disappear.  For the first time since Reconstruction the GOP now holds the legislature.

It does bear noting West Virginia has followed a trend similar to other Southern states in turning to the GOP at virtually every level.  Arkansas, North Carolina and Mississippi have done so significantly under Obama.  Yet, pockets of Democratic support remain.  The state does have a Democratic US Senator and most of its statewide, Constitutional officials are Democrats.  In 2016, the GOP will be looking to capture the ultimate prize, the gubernatorial mansion.

Republicans have not won a gubernatorial contest since 1997.  Yet the party has remained close in recent elections.  In 2011, Governor Ray Tomblin won with 49% in the special election to replace Manchin.  In 2012, Tomblin did win with 50% but against an underwhelming GOP opponent and with the advantages of incumbency.  No such advantage will exist in 2016. Worse, Manchin announced he would stay in the Senate and robbed state Democrats of their best candidate to hold the seat.

The potential pool of candidates for Democrats is admittedly limited.  Natalie Tennant is going to run for reelection as Secretary of State.  Former interim Senator Carte Goodwin is unlikely to run.  Billioniare businessman Jim Justice and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler have announced but the state party seems to be waiting on the intentions of Booth Goodwin, US Attorney for the Southern District of West Virginia.  His local roots to Charleston would offer Democrats hope he could cobble together the rural, downscale coalition that has kept the party in power in local elections. Republicans are coalescing around Senate President Bill Cole.  Cole has a strong legislative record in the state and bipartisan appeal.

At first glance West Virginia should lean Republican.  But that excludes its history of supporting Democrats at the local level.  Thus, even the though state is likely to back the GOP Presidential candidate there is no guarantee that translates to a GOP victory in the Governor’s race.  However, at worst the GOP has a 50/50 shot and at best Democrats are 60/40 favorites.  Indeed, I would say the GOP has a slight edge in the race.

There are two reasons for this.  First, despite West Virginians being willing to split their tickets for President and Governor the national trend for such an occurrence is shrinking.  Expect the Republican nominee to try and connect the Democrats gubernatorial nominee to the national party.  Secondly, and much more importantly, the Democratic Gubernatorial coalition has shown signings of fracturing.

Such a fracturing could be witnessed in the state’s 2014 Senate elections.  Each West Virginia legislative district has two senators and they are elected to four year, staggered terms.  The ancestral home and strength of the Democratic party is in the South/Southcentral region of the state.  In 2014 this region overwhelmingly voted GOP at the legislative level.  Of the 12 Senate races that could be considered in those regions the GOP won 8.  Of those 8 seats, six of the winners were new to the legislature.  In other words, undefined, generic Republicans won open seat/against incumbent races in the ancestral heartland of the Democratic Party.  Gulp!.

The challenge for the Democratic nominee is twofold.  First, distance yourself from the national party.  On some issues, like abortion and gay marriage, Tomblin and Manchin were successful because they did and often were forceful about it.  The second and larger challenge will be to convince voters that a West Virginian Democrat is still worthy of the state executive’s office even though most voters now more closely align with the GOP.  The challenge for the GOP nominee will be to convince West Virginians their ancestral loyalty to the West Virginia Democratic Party needs to be ditched for the West Virginia GOP.

Regardless of the candidates and the lack of media coverage the race should be interesting and illustrative of the final chapter of the “Great Realignment.”  Combined with the 2015 Kentucky Gubernatorial election results, West Virginia’s results should tell us whether strong, local Democratic roots can still overcome recent voter loyalty to the GOP.  We will see.