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Death of the West Virginia Democrat

The GOP's nationalizing politics may have snuffed out one of the truly distinctive local American political cultures.
Robert Byrd and Jimmy Carter

If you didn’t already have enough reasons to find last week’s election results dispiriting, here’s another one to chew on. The wiping out of the Democratic Party in West Virginia appears near-complete—a rather momentous development, though perhaps for not-obvious reasons. Yes, this was a long time coming, and that the Democrats would incur major losses in 2014 was not at all unexpected. Still, the scale of the decimation was staggering. (Natalie Tennant, a white, coal-supporting Democratic Senate candidate, somehow underperformed compared to Obama in 2012. She lost by 27.6 percent)

West Virginia was long home to an idiosyncratic, difficult-to-comprehend ethos that for decades (centuries?) had been somewhat insulated from the transitory, cyclical trends of national politics. Whereas, say, Pennsylvania or Missouri had always been taken as “bellwethers” of sorts, West Virginia perennially marched to the beat of its own drum. The state elected Democrats, and only Democrats, for something like 60 years. Sen. Robert Carlyle Byrd’s name is famously plastered everywhere you look there, because West Virginia sorely needed pork (i.e., infrastructure projects), and Byrd was darn good at bringing home the pork.

But Byrd is dead now. Jay Rockefeller, another legacy Democrat, retired. No one has emerged to carry on the West Virginia populist Democrat mantle; Sen. Joe Manchin, the only remaining Democrat of real repute (perhaps other than Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin), falters in this arena. Unlike Byrd—who spoke out voraciously against the Iraq War, for instance—Manchin doesn’t give the impression of taking populism very seriously. His idea of channelling populist discontent is to position himself as some kind of ill-defined “centrist” with no core convictions other than ostensible “moderation.” (Manchin had been a member of David Frum’s “No Labels” group until quitting last week.) Say what you will about Byrd, but at least he had a relatively discernible political ideology.

“Can you believe that, in anyone’s imagination, they thought that would ever happen in West Virginia?” Manchin said Wednesday. “But things change.”

Well, yes, “things change,” but things also happen because certain actors consciously effect change. The rout of Democrats in West Virginia didn’t have to happen, it was allowed to happen by a combination of fecklessness, poor strategy, and concerted GOP messaging that has successfully “nationalized” politics all over the U.S. Indeed, that was the stated goal of conservative operatives this cycle—to “nationalize” contested races such that they became less about local concerns, i.e., how to best serve the constituents of a particular polity, and instead morphed into nebulous referenda on Obama. (Here’s a video of legendary GOP marketing guru Richard Viguerie explaining how all this went down.)

It’s not simply that Democrats lost and Republicans won. One might imagine a West Virginia political culture that retained its idiosyncrasies and simply elected Republicans instead (after all, West Virginian Democrats tended to be quite culturally conservative.) But I don’t think that is what’s happening here. The incentives presently at work in the American system are truly “nationalizing” politics and thereby negating regional distinctions.

Why the heck should a citizen in Greenbrier County, West Virginia vote for a House member on the basis of aversion to Obama? That calculus makes little sense in terms of his or her own self-interest. However, such a calculus most certainly serves the interests of GOP consultants, who worked diligently and craftily this cycle to “frame the narrative” in a way that would enable them to seize power, and therefore money and influence.

Nick Rahall, a 19-term House incumbent, was ousted last week, even after surviving in 2010, which was widely assumed to have been the absolute low-point for Democrats. (Rahall actually won fairly easily that cycle—by 12 percent. What exactly happened in the ensuing four years? Certainly Obama was unpopular in West Virginia then as well. I don’t know the answer.) Because of his seniority, Rahall was positioned to provide needed resources to his constituents in that very inscrutable area (even relative to other parts of West Virginia) that few understand.

Now, instead of this seasoned Congressman who had held office since 1977, a novice GOP state senator will be representing the district. Is that really going to benefit the Greenbrier Valley? Is that really going to help preserve a very peculiar political culture, which ought to be celebrated in a country that supposedly prizes diversity? Seems doubtful.

And this is all merely on the federal level. Republicans also captured total control of the West Virginia state legislature (including the House of Delegates for the first time in eight decades) on the strength of such candidates as a 17-year-old girl who campaigned on cutting business taxes. (She’s now 18.)

The 2014 elections may have been a sweeping victory for the GOP, but they were a stinging defeat for localism.

Michael Tracey is a journalist based in New York City.



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