And did you know their state bird is the cardinal?
I don’t mean to pull a Colbert-style “Better Know a State” here, but I’m a little surprised by how under-the-radar this West Virginia Senate race has been. Figured a bit of background was useful for context.
From a political standpoint, West Virginia has always been one of the more interesting states. It was the only state formed during the Civil War, breaking away from Virginia to stay with the Union. Whether or not it can be counted as a Union state is a murkier question. Like Kentucky, Tennessee, or my own Maryland, it’s really a question of technicality and divided allegiances.
Throughout the 20th century, it was one of the most reliably Democratic states, having one of the highest per capita rate of union membership (union, as in labor union… I’ve moved on from Union vs. Confederacy stuff). The term “redneck” was popularized during the West Virginia coal miners strike of 1912-13, in which UMW supporters wore red bandannas around their necks.
During the mid-century political realignments – which basically resulted in the wealthiest states voting for Democrats and the poorest voting Republican* – West Virginia was, for decades, a stubborn exception. It sided with Humphrey over Nixon in ’68, Carter over Reagan in 1980, Dukakis over Bush in ’88, and was right there with Clinton for his two runs. Before 2000, if you take out the 2 huge landslide elections of ’72 and ’84, you’d have to go back to the ‘50s to find West Virginia showing a preference for a Republican in the White House.
Even within the Democratic Party, they’ve never really been predictable, providing the tipping point in 1960 for Kennedy to beat Humphrey – one of the most pro-labor politicians in the land (and a Protestant running in a deeply Protestant state to boot) – in the primary. And it has always seemed a bit of an anomaly that the poorest state in the nation is represented by a Rockefeller in the Senate. All states seem quirky when viewed up close, but that seems particularly true in this case.
In the last three Presidential elections, West Virginia has finally succumbed to some of that rich state/poor state realignment – and by increasing margins each time. Early in the 2000 campaign, it was a swing state. It ended up a 6-point margin for Bush. By 2004, the spread had expanded to 13 points and that 13-point gap held up in ’08, despite, obviously, much stronger national numbers for Obama than there had been for Kerry. Read into that what you will.
Anyway, while it’s been tough watching one of the last hold-outs slipping, at least they’ve stayed with their Democratic roots in non-Presidential voting. But now, with the race to replace Bob Byrd, the Senate seat is listed as a toss-up. The fact that Byrd’s seat may switch parties hasn’t drawn near the attention that the Kennedy-seat flip did last year, even though there had been a Republican Senator from Massachusetts as recently as 1979 (by contrast, the last Republican Senator from West Virginia served a half-term that ended in 1959). We’re sort of pre-conditioned to assume Massachusetts is one type of state – the type that elects Democrats – while West Virginia is another type of state.
Joe Manchin isn’t a great candidate, but he’s not a particularly bad candidate either. He’s a popular governor and well-known throughout the state. He had a nice response, I thought, to the GOP casting call for “hickey” actors to portray West Virginians, and he carried himself well in yesterday’s Senate debate – the only one scheduled for the campaign.** But he could just as easily lose as win. Byrd’s seat (sorry, Scott Brown, I meant “the people’s seat”) could fall, and one of the last realignment holdouts could inch closer to completing the new map. To me, that will be a far more concerning storyline in two weeks than Delaware or Nevada or any other headline-grabbing races.
*There are a couple of exceptions on the list – notably Utah and Alaska.
**My brother would kill me if I didn’t mention the Mountain Party candidate, Jesse Johnson. Jesse ran for the 2010 Green Party Presidential nomination (with my brother’s support) and lost the nomination to Cynthia McKinney. He participated in yesterday’s debate and gets a nice quote at the end of the Washington Post article. There. Mentioned.