Things may look grim at the moment for West Virginia Democrats, but history tells us there may be a glimmer of hope heading into the 2024 election cycle.
Historically, even in the years when Democrats dominated state politics, Republicans occasionally won statewide elected office.
Among gubernatorial races, Arch Moore won in 1968 (reelected in 1972) and again in 1984, while Cecil Underwood was elected in 1996.
The common denominator? Bitter, divisive Democratic primary campaigns, followed by a failure of the party to coalesce behind its nominee.
In 1968, labor lawyer and former state Democratic Party chairman James Sprouse was a surprise winner over the more conservative establishment candidate, Attorney General C. Donald Robinson, winning the nomination by just 4,544 votes.
Since contrary to popular belief, I didn’t cover the 1968 or 1984 elections, I turned to Brad Crouser’s exhaustive, if somewhat fawning, Moore biography, “Arch, The Life of Governor Arch A. Moore Jr.” as a reference.
Regarding the 1968 race, Crouser writes, “The Democrats were deeply split, and Moore, who had gladly worked with Democratic factions up north, was more than happy to pick up the pieces, the dissenters and the dissatisfied wherever he could do so, in order to form a winning coalition.”
Sprouse’s chances were also hurt that summer by former Gov. Wally Barron’s bribery trial (which Moore ironically used to personify corruption within the Democratic Party machine), by an unflattering story published in the Charleston Daily Mail late in the campaign, and by a sympathy vote for Moore, who survived a helicopter crash just days before the election.
Moore was elected after receiving just 51% of the vote.
Similarly in 1984, Moore benefited from a divisive Democratic primary pitting conservative, pro-business House Speaker Clyde See against progressive, pro-labor Senate President Warren McGraw, and party establishment candidate, Attorney General Chauncey Browning.
See won the primary with less than 40% of the vote, but had no chance of uniting the party behind him. As Crouser notes: “His tenure as speaker was marked by battles with liberals, especially Senate President McGraw, and the UMWA became his bitter foe because he would not cater to their demands.”
Moore again won a close race, capturing 53% of the vote.
Likewise, in the 1996 primary, progressive, pro-labor candidate Charlotte Pritt won out over conservative, pro-business candidate Joe Manchin and a crowded field of Democratic challengers, also capturing less than 40% of the vote.
Rather than uniting behind Pritt, Manchin and other conservative Democrats actively campaigned for the GOP nominee, forming Democrats for Underwood.
(As noted previously, some trace the origins of the decline of the Democratic Party in the state to those Democrats who abandoned their party in the 1996 general election.)
Underwood was elected with less than 52% of the vote, and would go on to narrowly lose his 2000 reelection bid to Bob Wise, despite using $16 million of state funds as his own personal campaign slush fund, something Gov. Jim Justice appears ready to emulate by squirreling away some $18 million of unspent federal COVID relief funds in his Gifts, Grants and Donations account.
The point being, in each of these instances, divisive, hotly contested, multi-candidate Democratic primaries left the nominees vulnerable to defeat in the general election, particularly when they were unable to smooth over divisions in their parties.
Meanwhile, here we are a year out from the 2024 primary election, and throngs of Republican candidates are already lining up to run for statewide offices including U.S. Senate, governor (where the GOP field is already up to six), secretary of state, attorney general, and so on.
And while state political campaigns of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s could get down and dirty, they pale in comparison to the blood sport that politics have become of late.
Also, those elections predated Citizens United and social media, meaning that campaign funding was finite, as was the ability to saturate state voters with continuous streams of attack ads.
We’re already seeing big ad buys in the U.S. Senate race. The far-right PAC Club For Growth, which has committed to spend at least $10 million in the primary on behalf of Congressman Alex Mooney, is running ads attacking Justice for being a deadbeat businessman, and worse yet, a liberal.
There’s also been a flood of ads both praising and condemning Manchin for his support of the Inflation Reduction Act, even though Manchin is not yet a declared candidate, having said he will wait until late this year before deciding whether to seek reelection.
I’m not sure what’s more absurd about the right-wing One Nation attack ads — the claim that all Manchin got for his support of the legislation was an ink pen, or that the Act could wipe out more than 100,000 West Virginia fossil fuel jobs.
Evidently, One Nation thinks its target audience is too obtuse to understand that the handing out of pens is a traditional part of all bill-signing ceremonies.
Also, considering that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics puts state coal mining employment at about 11,500, and natural gas employment at about 5,000, both for direct and support positions, One Nation must be using one heck of a multiplier effect to get to 100,000 jobs, even if the Inflation Reduction Act could somehow instantaneously wipe out both industries — and keep in mind, the ad very specifically refers to fossil fuel jobs.
One Nation also fails to account for the great many jobs that are being created by the Act, with state green energy economic development announcements to date including Form Energy, GreenPower, Sparkz EV, Competitive Power Ventures, and BHE Renewables, to name a few. But I digress.
It seems certain that the 2024 GOP primaries will be expensive, hotly contested and precedent setting in terms of levels of attacks and maliciousness.
Ultimately, the nominees will likely come out of the primary contests like candidates Sprouse, See, and Pritt — politically battered and bloodied, with their reputations tattered, facing the daunting task of repairing damages and reuniting bitterly divided party faithful before the general election.
And, as the Republican Party continues its move toward right-wing extremism, candidates will likely have to go full MAGA to win crowded primary races, at the risk of alienating more moderate voters in the general election.
Already, Justice has taken to social media to build his MAGA bona fides, suddenly deciding after six years in office that a wall at the U.S. southern border is vitally needed, even though the border is some 1,500 miles from his place of residence in Lewisburg, and illegal immigration is hardly a most pressing issue for West Virginia.
(Justice went so far as to declare that West Virginia is now a border state. He also claimed the border is wide open, while posting a Fox News report citing record numbers of migrants being apprehended by the Border Patrol on a daily basis. So which is it, Jim?)
Justice has also been reduced to regularly slobbering over Donald Trump in hopes of securing his endorsement for U.S. Senate, including posting a claim that Trump “dominated” the CNN Town Hall Wednesday evening.
Justice did not elaborate on what made Trump’s performance so dominant. His continuing election denialism? His pledge to pardon a large portion of convicted Jan. 6 rioters? The insults directed at E. Jean Carroll a day after a jury awarded her $5 million in finding Trump liable of sexually assaulting and defaming her? His defense of his “Access Hollywood” comments, in which he said famous men have always been able to sexually assault women with impunity? His refusal to say whether he wants Ukraine to win its war with Russia, or to say whether he believes Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal?
Perhaps Justice liked when Trump called a Black Capitol Police officer a “thug,” having himself used the same word in 2020 to refer to Black high school basketball players.
Meanwhile, by the time the 2024 General Election campaign season gears up, construction of Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act-funded projects should be in high gear around the state, while the state will be continuing to reap the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act — benefits that undoubtedly will include additional major economic development announcements.
Taken together, all these factors lend themselves to the possibility that, as in 1968, 1984 and 1996, the 2024 election cycle could leave majority party candidates vulnerable to potential upsets if the minority party can put forward strong candidates with broad appeal.
There is one key difference, however. Although in those past elections, while you had yellow dog Democrats who would not vote for a Republican under any circumstances, for the most part, members of the opposition party were not viewed as mortal enemies, as they are these days, and a majority of West Virginia voters would cross party lines if circumstances warranted.
Also, the state has been suffering an ongoing exodus of its best and brightest, and the electorate of 2024 is unlikely to be as discerning as its counterparts from prior decades. Unfortunately, you have sizable numbers of state voters who repeatedly and consistently vote against their own best interests simply in order to “own the libs.”
The big unknown is at what point a majority of state voters would opt for an exemplary Democratic candidate over a deeply damaged Republican, but history at least offers a glimmer of hope for the party in 2024.
Finally, happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there.
CLICK HERE to follow the Charleston Gazette-Mail and receive