West Virginia and Montana: Indicators of Democratic Trouble

cole_announcementPolitically, Montana and West Virginia have shared many characteristics for decades.  Until the 60’s both were considered swing states at the Presidential level.  In the 1980’s, when both states turned dark red Presidentially, they remained loyal to their local, Democratic roots.

Montana’s political transition has been faster.  Since the 2000’s the legislature has been more red than not and the GOP has controlled the state’s at-large house seat for over a decade.  The GOP historically has controlled at least one Senate seat since the 90’s.  By contrast, West Virginia’s legislature had been Democratic for over 100 years until 2014.  In the same year WV also elected its first GOP Senator in decades.

This cycle, both states offer the party a dilemma; how to hold the Governor’s mansions when their party’s base of increasingly urban and suburban whites and minorities is leaving the values of these states voters behind.  Both states offer case studies in just how competitive the Democratic Party remains in red states.

In Montana, the task is arguably easier for the party.  Governor Steve Bullock, elected in 2012, is closely attuned with his state’s electorate.  He outran Obama by almost 8 percent in the state allowing him to win with an underwhelming 49 percent.  He allied with moderates in the GOP legislature to pass Medicaid Expansion and has turned it into a managed/community care system.

The Democratic Party in Montana is relatively healthy.  Bullock’s Lt. Governor is a Democrat, as is the Secretary of State.  Senior Senator Jon Tester formerly led the DSCC and was reelected in 2012.  While the legislature is not likely in play this cycle the party consistently puts up candidates in over 80 percent of districts on a regular basis.

Compare that to the sorry state of the Democratic Party in West Virginia which has seen a massive reversal of fortune since 2008.  At the start of 2009, the party held better than a 3-1 advantage in the state House and an even larger advantage in the state senate.  They held both US Senate seats, every statewide, constitutional office, the Governorship and 2 of 3 US House seats.

Heading into 2016 the party is reeling from losing the legislature for the first time in over 100 years, does not control a single US House seat and lost a Senate seat they have held for almost 100 years.  Now, the best the party can hope for is to hold the ancestrally blue Governor’s mansion.  The party might be lucky if it can.

Once dominant at the local level the party has seen voters run away from it in droves.  Unlike Montana Democrats who have maintained the loyalty of rural voters at a consistent level under Obama the party has literally been obliterated in West Virginia.  How else can one describe a party disappearing under a fellow partisan President in 6 years?

Worse, the Democratic Party in West Virginia is defending an open seat and is seeing the party’s ideological fissures play out in its multi-candidate field.  Republicans have settled on new Senate Majority Leader Bill Coles to be their standard bearer.

Demographically, both states are similar; heavily white, ancestrally populist and beholden to a heritage of Democratic conservatism.  Formerly, both states offered Democrats a strong base of union strength.  But West Virginia just recently passed a right to work law and Montana’s labor base has been leaving for decades.  In addition, union membership in both states is not a reliable indicator for additional Democratic ballots.  Many of these union members are white, culturally conservative and as angry as many conservative Republicans.

Put all this together and you see the issue Democrats face in both states.  The GOP is politically aligned with the voters of both states far better than Democrats.  But gubernatorial elections can be swayed by local factors and that is why Bullock has a better than 50/50 shot.  He’s an experienced politician running against an inexperienced businessman.

Not so much in West Virginia.  Republican candidate Bill Coles is an experienced politician who knows his state.  He has run in a heavily Democratic district for years and won.  No Democratic candidate can say the same.  The only boost for Democrats in WV is that Jim Justice can spend millions if he is the Democratic nominee.

Whether Bernie or Hillary top the ticket probably will not make much of a difference.  Maybe Bernie can get a few more votes in union county in West Virginia.  Maybe Clinton can get some suburbanites in Missoula.  But both do not play well with rural, conservative voters.  The kind that decide elections in both states.  Which leaves both states Democratic heritage in peril.

If one, or both states, governor’s mansions turn red regardless of the national results it will signify that Democrats, even running to the right, cannot distance themselves from their national brand.  But, if Bullock or a Democratic candidate can win in West Virginia, it may at least slow the tide.

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