Politics & Policy

Of Coal and Politics

Shelley Capito on the campaign trail. (Photo via CapitoForSenate.com)
The GOP may finally break through to the U.S. Senate in West Virginia.

‘If there was one state that votes Democratic, it would be West Virginia. If there was one county that would vote Democratic, it would be Raleigh County. And if there was one man who would vote Democratic in that county, that vote would belong to me.” Family lore in the Rupe clan credits my grandfather, a proud coal miner, union member, and loyal Democrat from Sophia, W.Va., with proclaiming this immutable truth in the years that he lived and worked in the heart of coal country in the Mountain State. This feeling was shared by many in this unique American landscape dominated by coal.

Coal was discovered in the 18th century in what was then Virginia, and coal mining had become a major industry in West Virginia by the turn of the 20th. By the eve of World War II, approximately 140,000 West Virginians were employed in the industry, in a state that had less than 2 million people. Mined in all but two of the state’s 55 counties, coal touched almost every community and imprinted itself in the very identity of the community. Coal had become so big that it was destined to determine political power in the state for the rest of the century.

Between 1932 and 1996, Republican victories in local, state, and national elections were rare in West Virginia. With FDR’s great realignment in 1932, West Virginia became a reliable Democratic state. The last time a Republican won a Senate election there was 1956 (and doesn’t everyone remember Chapman Revercomb?). No other state has gone that long without a GOP winner. The last close race occurred in 1984, when Jay Rockefeller won his first election to the upper chamber. Since 1958 almost every Senate election has either been a large victory or a complete blowout for the Democrat. This is the state that elected Robert Byrd to the Senate nine times and Rockefeller five times. If this were a title fight, the GOP would have thrown in the towel long ago.

Since 1932 the GOP has won only five of 22 races for governor. In the last ten years, the Republicans were blown out by popular Democrat Joe Manchin in 2004 and 2008, but after Manchin decided to step down in 2010, in order to run for the Senate seat Byrd had left vacant by his death, the GOP candidate came within an eyelash (a mere 7,000 votes) of winning the special election against Manchin’s successor, Earl Ray Tomblin, the following year. The Republican lost to Tomblin by only five percentage points in the regular election in 2012.

Manchin’s 2010 Senate race came in the midst of a national wave election. Early polling had the Republican, John Raese, running almost even with Manchin, which had to come as a surprise to the popular ex-governor, who had won almost 70 percent of the vote in 2008. As a result, Manchin produced a unique commercial showing his opposition to a cap-and-trade bill by (literally) shooting a rifle bullet into a copy of the legislation. After that, Manchin never trailed, and he won the election by ten points in a year when Republicans picked up seven Senate seats nationwide, and when the GOP won the West Virginia House seat in the northern part of the state for the first time since 1968.

From 1932 through 1996, West Virginia reliably voted for Democratic presidential candidates. Eisenhower didn’t even win the state in his landslide of 1952, though he did flip it in his 1956 reelection bid. West Virginia didn’t vote Republican again until the 1972 Nixon landslide, and it resisted the GOP trend among southern states in 1980 and voted for Carter over Reagan. The state voted for Reagan in 1984 (who didn’t?) but returned to the Democratic fold in 1988, 1992, and — as it turned out, for the last time — 1996, when it delivered a 15-point blowout to Bill Clinton.

Things were bound to change in 2000, when Al Gore had to defend his environmental record against George W. Bush, who, as governor of Texas, was a big proponent of the use of oil, coal, and natural gas. Bush jumped ahead early and never gave up his lead. On election day, he beat Gore by five points, a GOP increase of 20 percentage points in four years, in a cycle in which every Electoral College vote counted. In 2004, Bush won by 13 points.

While Barack Obama was cruising to victory in 2008, he lost West Virginia decisively, 42 percent to John McCain’s 55 percent. In 2012, Obama lost even more decisively to Mitt Romney, 35 percent to 62 percent. In Raleigh County, in the heart of coal country, President Obama lost in 2012 by 45 points, an astounding turnaround considering that Jimmy Carter had won the county by 30 points in 1976, a mere generation before. At the same time, Nick Rahall (first elected in 1976), the Democratic congressman from the district that encompasses the southern part of the state, including Raleigh County, was returned to the House by eight points. Incidentally, Rahall is considered one of the most endangered Democratic incumbents this year, and it is quite possible that all three congressional districts may fall to the GOP, something that hasn’t happened since 1928.

Which brings us to this year’s Senate race. Facing possible defeat, Jay Rockefeller decided to retire. Even before his announcement, Republican Shelley Capito, who first won election to Congress in 2000 and has represented the second district ever since, had decided to run, and she is the clear favorite against the Democratic secretary of state, Natalie Tennant. If Capito holds her lead, she will be the first Republican elected to the Senate from West Virginia in 58 years. She will also become the first woman to represent the state in the upper chamber.

The EPA’s restrictions on coal production have, predictably, been very poorly received in West Virginia, and that goes a long way toward explaining why Natalie Tennant, a person already elected to statewide office, finds herself running far behind Shelley Capito. Coal resonates in the soul of this proud and independent people. Attacks (or perceived attacks) on coal are not only about jobs; they insult the work of generations of West Virginians, who take deep pride in what their families and friends have labored to bring out of the ground and the way they have made a life for themselves. In a secular world, coal is about as sacred a thing as there is these days outside of the cathedral. Any candidate or political party that estranges itself from coal will face the prospect of defeat in the proud upcountry precincts of the Mountain State.

— Ryan Rupe serves as a Navy chaplain. The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent the views of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the Department of the Navy.

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