If you know much about West Virginia — and given its perpetual 49th-place showings in a variety of national rankings, it’s doubtful you’d have reason to — you might conclude it would be the perfect place for a Democratic politician to get caught with his pants down.
In the Mountain State, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, and usually vote accordingly. It’s one of organized labor’s last great game preserves. Residents will go on gratefully returning porkmaster Robert C. Byrd to the U.S. Senate until physically impossible. And in the fall of 1998, polls indicated that a substantial majority of West Virginians opposed President Bill Clinton’s impeachment.
So after Gov. Bob Wise admitted recently to having an affair with a married state employee — who’s now divorced as a result — conventional wisdom suggested that Wise would simply need to consult the Clinton handbook on lip-biting and showing remorse, and the partisan electorate would mumble “Not our business” and shuffle on, ready to reelect him next year.
Unfortunately for Wise, it hasn’t worked out that way. Just a little over a month later, an overwhelmingly negative public reaction has already led to serious political consequences. As Democrats who had all but abandoned a primary challenge reignite their campaigns (one, secretary of state Joe Manchin, is officially in; more are expected to follow), Wise seems in danger of a critical pre-election loss. The state’s largest teachers union, already bellyaching about — surprise! — not having gotten big enough raises on Wise’s watch, has begun cozying up to its new Democratic suitors.
Meanwhile, lawmakers from the governor’s own party are backing away — and fast. In a particularly ominous sign, the state senate majority leader suggested that Wise might want to collect his gold watch and pension, and forget about running again. “When he looks back on this in a few years, I’m not sure it’s worth it,” Sen. Truman Chafin told the Charleston Daily Mail.
Surprising? Hardly. Wise and his backers are confronted with a lesson Al Gore learned too late in 2000: Reading your own political fortune with Clinton’s used tea bags can be a terrible, and possibly fatal, mistake in a state like West Virginia.
Even before Mountaineers bucked history and handed George W. Bush a crucial five electoral votes in 2000, West Virginia was a “red state” to the core. Coal and a violent, tragic past may have helped residents accept certain big-government trappings, but this is still a place where most households own at least one gun, where abortion is frowned upon while the death penalty and school prayer are not, and where traditional values matter. Wise should know — that last phrase was a centerpiece of his successful gubernatorial campaign in 2000.
During Clinton’s impeachment, West Virginia, like some other red states, made extraordinary allowances for an extraordinary politician blessed enough to preside over an extraordinary economy. But it was probably a one-time-only offer. Just look over the border at Appalachian neighbor Kentucky, where Democrat Paul Patton’s admission to having had an affair has helped make him the state’s most unpopular governor in recent history.
The fall of 1998 saw this red state’s moral tolerance stretched to its breaking point. But unlike Clinton, who kept jawing about the meaning of “is” until he was disgustedly waved on, Wise probably lacks the oiliness and economic dumb luck needed to make it through.
Granted, he’s shown a gift for Clintonesque triangulation. As a U.S. Representative for eleven terms, he typically had a good sense of how often he could get away with flipping his own party the bird. As governor, Wise has spurned his Democratic base by cutting deals with both doctors (he averted a walkout earlier this year by agreeing to caps on “pain and suffering” awards) and the coal industry (he has backed higher weight limits on coal trucks).
What’s saved Wise from more criticism over such cynical moves has always been his image as a homespun family man. There is still no better political armor in a red state than being a devoted husband and father — and he’s now cast that armor aside.
Of course, Wise is a political survivor above all else, and it’s as difficult to imagine him giving up as it would have been with Clinton. But the early returns are already suggesting that it takes a Clinton to fool a village.
— Dan LeRoy is a freelance writer whose work appears in Vibe, the Hartford Courant, Alternative Press, and Gene Simmons Tongue.