Donald Trump’s electoral domination in Appalachia—defeating Hillary Clinton 63 percent to 33 percent and winning more than 90 percent of its counties—marked an exclamation point on two decades of regional drift from Democrats to Republicans.
The power shift includes not just presidential votes and congressional delegations, but state legislatures and even local control in many places.
The Democratic Party, which dominated Appalachia from Reconstruction through the 1990s, faces broad challenges, including the loss of membership, attrition of its organizational structures and a question of whether the national party is simply incompatible with a significant number of rural voters who will vote against a candidate based on issues like guns and coal.
Anti-Trump fervor, however, already has injected new energy into Democratic committees in rural communities across the mountains. The response isn’t unusual: Whichever political party holds the presidency tends to see a gradual erosion of its grip on lower-level offices across the country. Virginia, which holds statewide elections in years following the presidential campaign, voted from 1977 through 2009 for governors from party opposite that of the president, breaking the streak only in 2013, when it elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe the year after Barack Obama’s re-election.
Besides statewide elections, Virginians will also vote this year for all 100 seats in the state House of Delegates. Additionally, many localities in Appalachia hold elections in 2017. Trump’s election has proven to ignite a passionate response from both parties.
“It’s amazing how there’s a bright line. If you are a Democrat who lives in a Democratic area, Trump is the best thing that ever happened to you,” said Virginia Del. Greg Habeeb, a Republican from Salem. “If you’re a Republican and live in a Republican area, Trump is the best thing that ever happened to you, politically.”
Democrats have reported growing numbers at committee meetings since November, and now they are seeing fresh candidates, many of whom were motivated in some way by the presidential campaign.
“November 8 just changed the world for us,” said Susan Swecker, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Virginia, as well as a native of Highland County, which borders West Virginia. “Folks want to do something.”
But there are limits. Swecker said Virginia Democrats are targeting 17 state house districts where Hillary Clinton won. West of Richmond, those districts are few and far between. In the 6th and 9th congressional districts, which encompass most of Appalachian Virginia, Trump won with 59 percent and 68 percent, respectively — his biggest margins in the state.
Only two Democrats hold state house seats west of Richmond. Of the Republican-held house districts in Appalachian Virginia, all voted for Trump except one: the 12th district, located in the New River Valley. Del. Joseph Yost, a district native who since high school has claimed the nickname “Scholar from the Hollar,” won the seat in 2011 after the retirement of a Democratic incumbent, and he’s successfully defeated challengers in three straight elections.
“My district is unique in that it’s pretty much a 50-50 split between Republicans and Democrats,” Yost said. “You’ve got very rural, more conservative areas in outlying parts of Giles and Pulaski, parts of Montgomery, and a more liberal base around Blacksburg and Radford.”
In 2017, Yost’s challenger is a well-known former news anchor whose fiancé was killed live on air in 2015. Democrats see Chris Hurst, who left Roanoke CBS affiliate WDBJ earlier this year to enter politics, as a rising star and chance to win back a seat the party held just seven years ago.
Hurst said his campaign grew out of his journalism covering issues affecting people. “I wanted to get my hands on real solutions and working to implement them,” he said. “I wanted something higher than myself.”
Hurst’s decision to run was cemented last fall by two events that occurred within the space of 15 days. In late October, a former employee walked into the FreightCar America in Roanoke and opened fire, killing one person, wounding three others and then killing himself. Two weeks later, Trump won the presidency.
“The Trump election of 2016 galvanized me politically, not just in terms of my views but in the urgency of needing strong candidates to be able to discuss these issues,” Hurst said.
A new populism
The election also has inspired other Democrats to jump into politics. In Morgantown, West Virginia, where all seven city council seats are up for election in late April, at least two first-time candidates were inspired to run — at least in part — by the presidential election.
Mark Brazaitis, an author who has taught English at West Virginia University for 17 years, has long participated in politics on various levels, starting with watching his father cover national politics in Washington, D.C., for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He entered the city council race out of local concerns, but also because of his teenage daughters’ response to Trump’s election.
“The morning after the election, my older daughter came to me, tears in her eyes, and said to me, ‘I’m scared,’” Brazaitis said. “We have so much at stake and we have the wrong person in office who’s going to help with the future. What propelled me to run for office in Morgantown was an impulse to act locally, but also a disenchantment with the election results.”
Across town, Barry Lee Wendell, a retired schoolteacher and cantorial soloist, also entered the city council race after having been disappointed by November’s election. Wendell moved to Morgantown in 2012 after his partner was hired as rabbi for the Tree of Life Congregation. Wendell unsuccessfully ran last year for the West Virginia House of Delegates. He said he’d decided not to run again, but changed his mind after he heard the council incumbent in his ward was stepping down.
“My issues are more bigger issues than what the city is about,” Wendell said. “The city seems wonky to me. It’s about getting the streets paved, and traffic and crime, whereas I’m more worried about national-level things like health care and the environment.”
Wendell’s conundrum demonstrates why local elections have remained relatively free of the polarized divide that characterizes national politics.
In Lewisburg, West Virginia, which is also holding elections this year, the two dominant parties on the council aren’t Democrats and Republicans, but the majority Citizens Party and opposition Community Party.
That’s not to say that national politics don’t influence what happens locally. Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, up for re-election this year in one of Appalachia’s rare Democratic strongholds, has been strongly criticized for his 2015 pledge to take in hundreds of Syrian refugees.
The reactionary nature of down-ticket politics often works in favor of the party that doesn’t hold the White House. Republican officials, for example, talk about how many new members the party picked up in 1993 and 1997, the years following national wins by Bill Clinton. Conversely, Democrats picked up seats during the George W. Bush presidency.
The 2008 election of Barack Obama, however, set off an even more dramatic chain reaction than usual.
Once upon a time in Appalachia
Del. Greg Habeeb rattled off a long list of Democrats who held elected office in western Virginia just a decade ago. The list was even longer back in the ’90s.
“When I was growing up, I remember hearing people say these voters have to choose between their gun or their union,” Habeeb said. “You had 2nd-amendment, Republican-type folks on one side and blue-collar union folks on the other side. These were more complicated voters than they may be in other parts of the world.”
The ’90s saw brighter partisan lines develop, along with greater predictability in voting patterns. That polarization came late to western Virginia, but it arrived in force with Obama.
“Obama gets elected and the Democratic party in the 9th district [which extends from Roanoke to Virginia’s southwest corner] died almost overnight,” Habeeb said. “The only things Democrats are left with are seats anchored by an urban or university hub.”
Habeeb faces two Democratic challengers in a district that leans heavily Republican. Habeeb’s predecessor, Morgan Griffith, held the seat for 17 years before defeating Democrat Rick Boucher for a congressional seat in 2010. The “Fighting 9th,” which had carried Boucher to easy re-elections for 28 years, dropped him after a campaign centered largely on coal and his vote for a cap-and-trade bill. (The same year, Democrat Joe Manchin won a U.S. Senate seat in West Virginia in part with a television ad showing him literally shooting the bill with a gun. All signs indicate that Manchin will be targeted when he’s up for re-election next year—certainly by Republicans and possibly by a Democratic primary challenger.)
Habeeb hasn’t been challenged since the special election to replace Griffith in 2011. Democrat Steven McBride said that fact played heavily in his decision to run this year. “With the energy being built up in grassroots across the country, all the movements working for positive change, I knew I wasn’t alone,” McBride said. “I faced a simple choice: I could sit back, complain, do some computer chair politicking about what I didn’t like, or lace up my boots and get to work.”
Bryan Keele, the other Democrat running against Habeeb, called the Trump presidency “an influencing factor” but like McBride said he was motivated by what he sees as a need for politics to embrace new voices. “I believe that people that historically have not been involved in politics need to be involved,” Keele said.
Although there’s lots of opposition energy in the Democratic Party, even in Appalachia, renegade political consultant Dave “Mudcat” Saunders advised that rural candidates shouldn’t mistake the anti-Trump energy in their party base for a winning strategy.
“An anti-Trump message will not work in rural America,” said Saunders, who built a reputation helping Democrats attract rural voters using the “Bubba Strategy.”
“It just won’t work, because we’re in a new age of economic populism. Trump’s talking about bringing our jobs back, so our kids can have an opportunity here. Rural America has been kicked around and they’re sick of it. We’ve been screwed every way but loose.”
The bigger problem for Appalachian Democrats will be overcoming perceptions that the national wing of the party is incompatible with rural mountain values. Quotes by Obama in 2008 and Clinton in 2016 became bright lines that crystalized the perception that national Democrats were incompatible … with rural Appalachian values.
- Obama in 2008, talking about small-town Pennsylvania: “And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
- Clinton in 2016, in the context of a longer answer about renewable energy and economic transition: “Because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?”
The return of the ‘West Virginia Democrat’?
That’s why, although he’s got name recognition, financial support from his party and a favorable district in terms of demographics, former TV anchor Hurst is running uphill in his campaign against Yost. To start, Hurst isn’t from western Virginia—he grew up outside Philadelphia—and moved from Roanoke into the 12th District expressly to challenge Yost.
Additionally, the nature of Hurst’s personal story links him to the issue of guns, and although he’s adamant that the 2nd Amendment is not his issue, he’ll begin the race working against that perception. The 12th District hasn’t mined coal at significant levels since the early 1900s, but the 12th District is home to a 98-year-old Appalachian Power plant that closed in 2015 as a result of the Obama administration’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) rule.
Even if he does strike the right balance when asked about guns and coal, Republicans will likely attempt to point past Hurst and tie him to national Democrats. That disconnect between national Democrats and rural voters represents a fundamental challenge to Appalachian Democrats that’s not going away — with state Republican chairs trying to make an association between Democrats on the national level and those in more local settings.
“Virtually every issue on which anyone has a strong opinion in the state of West Virginia is bad for the Democrats because there is virtually nothing whatsoever in their party platform which resonates positively with people in West Virginia,” said West Virginia Republican Chairman Conrad Lucas. “For a long time, Democrats in West Virginia were able to say there’s a difference between national Democrats and state Democrats. There’s no longer a distinction.”
Many West Virginia Democrats disagree with Lucas’ assessment that local politicians have aligned themselves too closely with the national party. West Virginia’s top two elected Democrats, after all, are cap-and-trade-bill-shooting U.S. Sen. Manchin and newly elected Gov. Jim Justice — the state’s only billionaire, who only switched from Republican to Democrat in February 2015.
“One can’t look at the West Virginia Democratic Party and say that our brand of Democrat is the same as the Dems in New York, LA, or DC,” said Karan Ireland, a Democrat serving on Charleston City Council. “Utter the phrase ‘West Virginia Democrat’ anywhere else in the country and people might not understand, but say those words in West Virginia and we know exactly what kind of Democrat you mean.”
“To say that this party aligns itself with the national party is just wrong. However, when it comes to the issues that face working people, West Virginia Democrats remember their working-class roots.”
The mounting challenge for Democrats in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia will be to convince voters that’s the case.
After more than eight decades of Democratic control, Republicans took control of the West Virginia Legislature in 2014 and retained it again last year. Democrats retained control of the governor’s mansion — at least in part — because it’s hard to pin “war on coal” talking points on a coal baron like Justice.
Nevertheless, West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore admits, “We have not done a good enough job with voters to make them believe the Democratic Party still believes about working class families.”
Biafore and the new batch of Democratic candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring believe the party can win back its historic, blue-collar base by talking about across-the-board issues like economic fairness, health insurance, education and workforce training.
Republicans remain skeptical. Habeeb points to the general lack of Democratic challengers in Appalachian Virginia. Other than his and Yost’s races, and a couple farther north in the Shenandoah Valley and Charlottesville areas, mountain Republicans remain unopposed.
“I don’t want to overstate and say there’s a party alignment that can never go back, but Democrats have a long way to go, both messaging- and infrastructure-wise, before they can go back to being competitive in western Virginia,” Habeeb said.
That’s true of the rest of Appalachia, too.
A native of the Alleghany Highlands, Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) has worked as a journalist in the Blue Ridge Mountains since 2001. He lives with his family plus dogs, cats, chickens and dairy goats in Floyd County, Virginia.