From red to redder: GOP gains in West Virginia Legislature about more than Trump, leaders say
CHARLESTON — In a state created by the signature of Abraham Lincoln — the nation’s first Republican president — Republican candidates for the West Virginia Legislature were not only able to keep their majorities, but widened them.
According to unofficial election results compiled by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, the Republican majority in the state Senate increased from 20 to 23 in the 34-seat body, leaving Democrats with 11 seats.
In the House of Delegates, Republicans increased their seats from 58 to 76 assuming the current vote totals hold once counties canvass their ballots this week.
Political experts attribute the increase in GOP seats to good candidate recruitment, hard work, on-point messaging, and being nimble with where money was spent when compared to the millions spent by groups supporting Democratic candidates.
HOUSE OF DELEGATES
The possible seating of 76 Republican candidates during the next legislative session will be an 18-seat pickup for House Republicans. It’s 12 more seats than the 64 seats the Republicans claimed in 2014, when Republicans took the legislative majority for the first time in 83 years.
It’s also the most seats Republican have had in the House since 1920, when they had 73 seats.
Luke Thompson is executive director of Majority WV, a political action committee that worked with numerous Republican incumbents and freshman candidates during the 2020 election cycle. Thompson is also a contributor to National Review.
Thompson said it is too easy to write off the Republican gains as part of a wave of voters determined to vote for President Donald Trump and other statewide Republican candidates. While support for Trump and other Republicans — such as U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Gov. Jim Justice — helped down-ballot races, Thompson attributed other factors to Republican gains. Not only were quality candidates recruited by the West Virginia Republican Legislative Committee and others top notch, Thompson said the group of candidates that ran were also younger.
“I think that there is a trust in the West Virginia electorate that when they see a young candidate, that person is committed to West Virginia because it was believed West Virginia has trouble retaining young people,” Thompson said. “Everybody is, I think, very aware that a lot of talent leaves the state. So, when you have an intelligent, capable, talented, energetic, young person knocking on your door and saying, ‘I want to serve the state, the people of West Virginia, and my district,’ that’s a vote of confidence in the future of West Virginia.”
Thompson credited much of the work to Del. Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, and chairman of the Republican Legislative Committee. Both Del. Capito and U.S. Sen. Capito (his mother) traveled around the state to help promote Republican House of Delegates candidates.
“They recruited really, really well,” Thompson said. “In candidate quality, we had an unambiguous edge. That’s not to say (Democrats) don’t have some really strong candidates. They absolutely do, but I think we just have a higher quality.”
Messaging was also key, Thompson said. Republicans did a better job at messaging who they are and what they stand for. Thompson believes that West Virginia Democrats have had a hard time distancing themselves from the progressive trend at the national level in the Democratic Party.
“What is the Democratic Party about? What holds them together,” Thompson asked. “You have hatred of Donald Trump, who’s very popular in West Virginia. I don’t think that does the Democrats any favors. Socialism, especially the brand of environmental association that would be disastrous for West Virginia’s manufacturing and energy industry, hurts them. National Democrats are more or less hostile to the economic interests of West Virginia. I don’t think that the Democratic caucus in West Virginia has been willing to buck their national party.”
It’s a message that also resonated nationwide with Republicans picking up six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and Democrats losing five seats. By last count, Democrats had 209 seats to the Republicans’ 190 seats — a 19-seat difference. Republicans also look to hold a slim majority in the U.S. Senate.
Lastly, Thompson said West Virginians have had nearly six years to observe how Republicans govern. Despite two teachers’ strikes, the fights over the passing of Right to Work and the repeal of prevailing wage, millions of dollars poured into state elections by union groups, Republicans still keep earning majorities and the support of West Virginians.
“I believe it’s the general view of most West Virginians that Republicans are doing a good job governing the state,” Thompson said. “When you take into account the behavior of the Democratic minority in the Legislature, the behavior of the Democratic Party nationally, and then you factor in that we did a really good job recruiting people and we’re a lot more nimble and efficient with our dollars because we have way fewer dollars and they do I think that’s a big difference.”
While the House of Delegates races were skating by with little notice by political watchers and the media, eyes were in the state Senate where most of the outside PAC money was being spent to flip the chamber from red back to blue.
Instead, Senate Republicans picked up 23 seats during Tuesday’s elections — up from 20 seats currently. That leaves Senate Democrats with 11 seats. It’s also a long way from 2014, when Senate Republicans were able to pick up 17 seats, tying the Democrats that year. Thanks to former state senator Daniel Hall flipping from Democrat to Republican within days of the 2014 election, Republicans took the majority in the Senate for the first time since 1931.
Businessman Bill Cole, a former Republican state senator from Mercer County and the senate president from 2015 to 2017, helped recruit the Senate candidates that took the majority in 2014.
Since an attempted run for governor in 2016 against then-Democratic candidate Jim Justice, Cole has worked to advise and fundraise for numerous Republican Senate candidates. Cole said the fact that Republicans were able to secure 23 seats was no surprise.
“I worked very closely with a number of other people behind the scenes raising money and working hard on these individual races, but West Virginia continues to move red,” Cole said. “I believe genuinely as Republicans we always are trying to do the right things for our state and for the next generations to come. I believe the voters see and recognize that we have stagnated under Democratic rule for 83 years.”
Cole pointed to his native southern West Virginia as an example of the move rightward by voters.
Logan and Boone County voters elected Rupie Phillips, a former Democratic House of Delegates member who switched to independent while still in the House, then switched to Republican, winning an open Senate seat after state Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan, declined to run.
In Wyoming County, Circuit Clerk David “Bugs” Stover” won an unopposed seat in the district former senator Hall represented first as a Democrat before flipping to Republican in 2014.
“As the national Democratic Party and state party moved further and further to the left, I think a lot of the good old Southern Democrats — conservatives at heart — were looking or a new home and they’re finding it quickly in the Republican Party,” Cole said.
With the Senate taking the lead over the last few years on pushing legislation considered harmful to unions — Right to Work, prevailing wage repeal, education reform by changing hiring practices, allowing for charter schools and education savings accounts — much of the focus and spending by union-affiliated PACs was on picking up the four seats needed for Democrats to retake the majority.
For the third election cycle in a row, the third-party PAC going by Mountain State Values outraised and outspent most Republican candidates and the third-party PACs supporting them. According to the most recent campaign finance report with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, Mountain State Values raised $5 million from various unions, and spent $4.7 million just two weeks prior to the election.
Cole said that despite hostility to Republicans by union leadership, union members are reaping the benefits of Republican-led policies. Natural gas pipeline construction was a huge driver of employment over the last several years, along with new manufacturing opportunities. Teachers received two back-to-back raises, and the Public Employee Insurance Agency hasn’t had to make any changes to benefits for several years.
“I think more and more the disconnect is going continue to grow,” Cole said. “I think it gets easier and easier for members to choose to associate or not associate, and I respect that decision deeply, but I don’t believe that necessarily they’re buying into the old union rhetoric that used to exist.”
With Republicans holding two supermajorities in the Legislature, it opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities. Republicans now have the votes to pass joint resolutions to give voters the opportunity to vote for amendments the state constitution. Republicans can override vetoes by the governor when he exercises his line-item veto power on items in the state budget. Republicans also now have the two-thirds necessary to suspend House or Senate rules.
Even with a simple majority — 51 members in the House and 18 members in the Senate — Republicans can still move on a whole shopping list of legislative priorities, such as education reform, occupational licensing reform, repeal of certificate of need laws, and more. Cole said
“Stay tuned for an incredibly exciting legislative session coming up with supermajorities,” Cole said. “We can put constitutional amendments on the ballot, and that allows the citizens of our state to make decisions that will have deep impact on them for not only in the present, but for generations to come. We’re going to have the opportunity to look at all those things.”
(Adams can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)