Most West Virginians across political lines must feel like rubbing their eyes. The headlines telling us that both houses of the West Virginia Legislature now have Republican supermajorities seems surreal to those of us who remember Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, holding down the fort as a minority of one several years ago.
I vividly remember the time when the first tremors of the coming seismic political shift were felt across West Virginia. I was the Capitol correspondent for West Virginia MetroNews, covering the first visit to the Mountain State of then-candidate George W. Bush, governor of Texas. His campaign speech was to be held on the state Capitol grounds.
When I arrived, I couldn’t get over the steady stream of West Virginians coming to hear a Republican candidate for president speak. By the time of Bush’s speech, an estimated 5,000 people had taken off work to hear what the son of George H.W. Bush had to say. Bush’s speech was not particularly memorable but, on the other hand, he made no miscues, said nothing to offend any Democrats or Independents in the crowd.
People went home satisfied that they could like this guy and enjoyed the fact that they were part of a huge, historic political gathering at their Capitol.
Another non-offensive type came to the fore that year. Then a member of the House of Delegates, Shelley Moore Capito strategically chose 2000 as the year to attempt a significant advance to a federal office, joining Bush on the Republican ticket as a first-time congressional candidate.
Both won West Virginia, and handily. Remind yourself that the Charleston area had not seen a Republican member of Congress for two decades — the single term of Congressman Mick Staton, elected in Reagan’s winning year of 1980.
Since then, statewide and legislative victories have come to the Republican Party as more Democrats, especially in Southern West Virginia, have identified more with the GOP.
However, only now, following Tuesday’s election, can the Republicans now push forward easily their more pro-industry agenda. With supermajorities giving Republicans a two-thirds majority in both houses, the Republicans can advance whatever legislation they want. Only the governor, also a Republican, can stop them.
Democrats now have a real taste of what it was like for Republicans for decades: always on the outside looking in.
This is great news for any political party. However, the responsibility such legislative supermajorities create for the Republicans is enormous, starting now. In a word, despite a state that seems ideologically in tune with them, the voters will still demand results. Without an improved economy, Republicans in the Legislature will have nowhere to hide. They will not be able to blame the Democrats, since they are effectively sidelined from any significant leadership role.
Democrats must tune up their game, too, if they ever want a chance at being back in power. West Virginia is asserting itself as a state friendly to conservative economic policies, along with most voters identifying with traditional values that have been woven into the fabric of our mountain culture for many generations.
While contrasting themselves with Republicans might make sense on certain issues, the truth is that the old Democrat coalition that counted on huge labor numbers is gone with the wind. In its place are the small businesses the Republicans have courted for decades.
The West Virginia Democratic Party must take a hard look at where its message is still relevant — and whether they need to add some more center-right planks to it.
Evolve or die. Otherwise, the Republican Party, once the original voice in the West Virginia political wilderness, will have the megaphone for years to come.