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Capito Win Could Cap GOP Transformation of W.Va.

Capito Win Could Cap GOP Transformation of W.Va.

By Sean Trende - October 27, 2014

Almost every political observer agrees that Rep. Shelley Moore Capito will be Sen. Shelley Moore Capito when the next Congress convenes.  Almost every political observer also agrees that it won’t even be close; Capito leads her opponent, Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, by 17 points in the RealClearPolitics average.  There is also a reasonable chance that West Virginia will have an all-Republican House delegation.

What I think gets lost in the commentary is how amazing this is. If Nick Rahall loses, and Republicans retain the open 2nd Congressional District, it will be the first all-Republican House delegation from West Virginia since 1920.

The Senate results are even more stunning. If she wins, Capito will be the first Republican elected to a full term since the end of World War II, and only the second elected since the New Deal.  Only two Republicans have ever won a full Senate term from West Virginia by more than five points (David Elkins in 1918 and Chapman Revercomb in 1942); if she wins by more than 10.8 points, it will be the largest Senate win for a Republican in state history.

To put this further in perspective, going back to 2000, there is one state that has never elected a Republican governor or senator, and where the GOP has never controlled either house of the legislature: West Virginia.

What’s more shocking about this transformation is how abrupt it has been.  From 1940 to 1988, West Virginia was the model of electoral consistency: bouncing about a mean of being about five points more Democratic than the country as a whole. You can watch the trend line in the state’s Partisan Index – the state’s vote for the Republican presidential candidate less the country’s vote for the Republican presidential candidate – in the chart in the upper right.

But by 2012, the state looked like this:

If anything, this understates the change, because the partisan index is capped at +/- 10 percent on the maps (it is capped so that you can see granular change).  In the southern portion of the state, between 1988 and 2012, McDowell County moved 46 points toward the Republicans, Wyoming County moved 48 points toward Republicans, Logan County moved 49 points toward Republicans, and Logan County moved 50 points toward Republicans.

You can watch the full progression here.  Be sure and stay until the end.  It is one of the more dramatic things you’ll see in politics.

There’s no simple explanation for this.  The immediate response is to look at Barack Obama’s race.  But this explanation is unsatisfying, as the pro-Republican trend comes both too late and too early.  The Democrats have been recognized as the party of African-American rights at least since the 1960s, yet the pro-Republican trend doesn’t begin until the 1980s. Unlike Deep Southern states, where the backlash to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was immediate and obvious, the state evinced no rightward swing in 1964.  Of course, the trend also begins well before Barack Obama appeared on the national stage.

We can posit other explanations – the so-called War on Coal probably has to figure prominently, although the importance of coal to the state has diminished over the past few decades.

What we’re probably seeing here, however, is the under-discussed backlash against the Democrats’ so-called coalition of the ascendant. The fact that the switch has been so pronounced in Logan County has substantial symbolism attached to it; that is the location of the Battle of Blair Mountain, one of the defining incidents of the early labor movement. Democratic support for labor unions is one of the key reasons the state abandoned its ancestral Republicanism in the 1930s.

But as the Democrats become more defined by social liberalism – the “War on Woman” doesn’t play as well here – and secular, urban progressivism, places like West Virginia and Kentucky become more and more difficult (though not impossible) for them to win, even as places like Nevada and Colorado become more hospitable for them. In fact, if you look closely at the 2012 map of West Virginia, you do see the coalition of the ascendant’s footprint. The less-red counties are the urban areas and university towns: Cabell County (Huntington, Marshall U.), Kanawha County (Charleston), Monongalia County (Morgantown, WVU), and Jefferson County (D.C. exurbs). The end result of these switches (West Virginia and Kentucky for Nevada and Colorado), at least so far, has been marginal net change – as the Senate seats in Nevada become harder for Republicans to win and hold, the seats here become easier. 

This tradeoff may not hold, and Republicans could find themselves more or less maxed out with the old coalition after this election.  But up until now, that tradeoff is the key takeaway from the West Virginia Senate race.

If there’s a bigger lesson to be learned here, it is the utter unpredictability of politics, and the foolishness of making long-term predictions.  An observer suggesting in 1996 that a Republican Senate candidate would win a seat in the state by double digits within the next two decades would have received the sort of incredulous stare normally reserved for those who claim to have been abducted by UFOs.

Yet we see these sorts of long-term predictions made confidently by both sides, on a routine basis.  If there’s any meaning to the 2014 West Virginia Senate contest, it is that we should proceed with the utmost humility when trying to predict the future.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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