Catching a bigger wave than expected
I’ve now had a week to digest all the elections results and what they mean, and man, I’m still flabbergasted.
It’s not that I didn’t think Republican candidates would do well. I don’t do predictions, at least not in print. I do sometimes privately talk to people about who I think can win or not. I didn’t have much reason to believe that President Donald Trump and the state’s Republican federal candidates would not win.
I even believed the vast majority of Republican Board of Public Works candidates would win their races, including Gov. Jim Justice. What I couldn’t and didn’t predict was the wide margins Republican candidates would win by.
Results are still unofficial until counties do the vote canvass this week, but Trump beat former vice president Joe Biden by nearly 40 points, carrying 63.73 percent of the vote, in West Virginia. U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito won by more than 43 points with 70.37 percent of the vote (Capito even had more votes than Trump did). Justice beat Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango by 34 points with 64.86 percent of votes.
Trump, Capito and Justice carried all 55 counties in the state. All three Republican House of Representatives incumbents carried every county in their districts. At least one member of the Board of Public Works, Auditor J.B. McCuskey, carried all 55 counties as well. Justice and McCuskey were also the top two votegetters among statewide candidates.
The big surprise of election night was former Jefferson County Republican lawmaker Riley Moore beating six-term Democratic State Treasurer John Perdue 56.3 percent to 43.7 percent. Moore carried 48 out of 55 counties. Talking with Moore by phone last Tuesday, he sounded completely dumbstruck by the win. Most of the polling showed Perdue being safe, and even an internal poll the Moore campaign released last week only had him leading Perdue by 2 points.
Chalk it up to Moore starting early. He began his campaign for state treasurer nearly two years ago. I think Perdue, who easily fended off Republican challengers in 2016 and 2012, took his re-election for granted. I did too for that matter.
I thought Republican Attorney General Patrick Morrisey would win again, but I expected that race to tighten. I was confident that Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner would defeat former Democratic Secretary of State Natalie Tennant by a larger margin than he beat her in 2016, but I didn’t see him winning by such a wide margin. Same goes for the rest of the Board of Public Works races.
The fact of the matter is West Virginia was caught in a similar wave that other states were last Tuesday. The difference is there are more registered Democrats in those states who more closely align with the party. What we saw nationally were two waves crashing into each other: registered Democrats determined to vote against Trump and Republicans determined to vote for Trump.
In West Virginia, we only got the red wave and not the blue wave. As I have pointed out, political party registration between Republicans and Democrats is now statistically even. Even with that, there is a certain percentage of registered Democrats who vote Republican. These two groups of voters came out in person, while many Democrats voted by absentee ballot. Voter turnout broke the 2016 record for votes cast, with 793,088 votes cast, 62.49 percent of the state’s 1.2 million voters.
Another huge surprise of last week’s elections was the utter dominance of Republican candidates for the House of Delegates. While the eyes of Democratic operatives and union groups was spent on trying to flip the state Senate blue (which failed), no one was watching the House.
I certainly wasn’t. I assumed it would stay in Republican hands, and figured they’d pick up some, maybe lose others, but largely remain unchanged. The unions also were more concerned about the Senate, pouring millions to defeat Republicans for the third election cycle in a row.
While everyone was looking the other way, Republican House candidates were hard at work. Assuming the election numbers hold after the county canvass process, Republicans could have as many as 76 seats in the House, up from the current 58 seats. Even Republican Senate candidates performed better than expected, going from 20 to 23 seats. The Republican majorities in both chambers could have supermajorities going into 2021.
Last week’s elections truly put Republicans in the driver’s seat. It proved that unions, especially teachers’ union leaders, don’t truly have that much political power (something I’ve long said). It’s also proof that West Virginia is not ripe for progressive politics.
Take the WV Can’t Wait movement started by former Democratic candidate for governor Stephen Smith. The group’s agenda was a smorgasbord of progressive and democratic socialist public policy solutions.
Going into last week they had 38 candidates, mostly Democrats, who were campaigning for congressional, state, and legislative seats. After Tuesday, 34 out of their 38 candidates lost, including losing incumbent Delegates Amanda Estep-Burton, Sammie Brown and Rodney Pyles. Only delegate incumbents Cody Thompson and Danielle Walker will return next year, joined by newcomers Ric Griffith and Jim Barach, a former WCHS-TV weatherman who had name ID going for him.
While some of the delegates who won will probably be sympathetic to the WV Can’t Wait platform, I doubt they have enough members to form a caucus, let alone push any kind of progressive policy changes.
If last Tuesday taught Democrats anything, it is that leaning into fringe-left public policy is a very bad move in West Virginia.
(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)