If a common denominator exists among traditional West Virginia voters — Democratic and Republican — the search for the genuine article for their parties’ nominees for high office would have to be it.
For decades, West Virginia voters have been presented with odd hybrids, perhaps most vividly embodied lately by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Justice. Both men have tried mightily to offer something to everyone, with the result being a certain disappointment on both sides of the political aisle.
But we have had other “tweeners,” too, whether in Republican Govs. Arch A. Moore Jr. and Cecil H. Underwood or Democratic Govs. Bob Wise and Earl Ray Tomblin. They all were willing to forego partisan purity to get elected.
And please note, they each did get elected.
However, one challenging result of this practical politics was that the people were sometimes surprised at what they had elected. Republican and Democratic governors could go off their party’s script.
West Virginians may have in 2020 a gubernatorial contest that a healthy two-party system is supposed to produce in each major election. Partisan contrast — the heart and soul of the American political system — may have finally come to the Mountain State.
In Republican Woody Thrasher and Democrat Stephen Smith, each of the two major parties has a candidate for whom they can give full-throated support. Both have natural appeal as fresh faces to the state’s political scene, and both embody their respective party’s identity.
Smith: the big, caring government tradition of the Democratic Party, looking out for the little guy.
Thrasher: the business-like Republican government model that looks to empower West Virginia’s private sector to grow more and better jobs.
If one took a poll of average West Virginia voters, all but the most partisan among them would likely find some aspects about each party’s thesis appealing. That’s why so many past governors, including the incumbent, have tried so hard to embody both ideologies.
But in Smith and Thrasher, their fervent appeal to their parties’ bases necessarily will make it difficult for them to retract their views later in the general election, moderating them as so many gubernatorial candidates have done in the past.
Thrasher knows that the only way he can get past Justice in a prospective 2020 GOP gubernatorial primary is to fire up the conservative grassroots, to get them motivated to increase the popularity of his campaign.
Likewise, regardless of what Democratic primary opponents Smith may now face in a race without Manchin, he knows that only a revitalized Democratic base can give him a chance if he’s his party’s nominee.
The result? All of the hyper-partisanship of the past few years will finally provide one seriously good benefit for the West Virginia voters: a truly conservative vs. truly liberal choice, provided by the two major parties.
Better yet, both Smith and Thrasher are articulate go-getters who thrive on the campaign trail. As a result, due to any debates they have, campaign stops and advertising campaigns, West Virginia voters statewide will have as good an understanding between their choices as they have had in decades.
West Virginia has long been considered at least a center-right state, despite being predominantly Democratic in registration for much of the last century. Now that many more West Virginia voters seem more comfortable in voting Republican for state and federal offices, the advantage would appear to be with Woody Thrasher and his significant experience in the private sector.
But, oftentimes, an unexpected benefit emerges for a party that sends its best and brightest into battle. For the Democrats, putting forward an articulate candidate like Stephen Smith for governor can garner favorable coverage as he attempts to make decidedly progressive views appealing to the mainstream. Who knows? The center may like Smith and would be willing to give him a chance for four years.
Meanwhile, a competitive primary for Thrasher gives this first-time candidate a chance to regularly test his stump speeches. Eventually, he may find the sweet spot that appeals to both his conservatives and — after the GOP primary — the center.
Who doesn’t like job creation? Who doesn’t like fairness for the little guy? Both Thrasher and Smith possess elements in their speeches that could have great appeal. The trick will be to see whose content and presentation connects most broadly in the end. The center is smaller these days, but moderates and Independents still matter in close races.
Then, in the grand style of a functioning two-party system, if the public gives one of them a chance to lead only to have disappointing results, out he goes in the next gubernatorial election. Simple as that.
West Virginia, your years in the political wilderness may finally be over. You may soon have a clear choice between two appealing candidates who represent their party’s core beliefs well. As for the more partisan Republican and Democratic activists, each side deserves to have a candidate they believe in and can feel like supporting 100 percent.
Much good can come from a hard-fought and, hopefully, above-the-belt contest of contrasting ideologies. The grievances are fully aired, and the possible solutions are put forth.
Then, let the people decide.