Fiery socialist U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders didn’t win all of Appalachia in his insurgent 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.
On Super Tuesday, March 1, Hillary Clinton rolled in southern Appalachia, winning every county in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi, as well most of eastern Tennessee. Sanders lost Virginia but won most of its Appalachian counties. Two weeks later, Clinton won Ohio and North Carolina — although Sanders won a significant block in the latter’s western corner.
As March gave way to April and May, however, the Democratic primaries moved north to New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Sanders won significant chunks of Appalachia, including every county in West Virginia. Kentucky was particularly hard-fought, with Clinton winning by fewer than 2,000 votes statewide — with the Bluegrass state’s eastern counties checkerboarded between the two candidates. Clinton’s organizational and fundraising advantages eventually carried her to the Democratic Party nomination, where she suffered defeat at the hands of Donald Trump in November.
Sanders still serves in the U.S. Senate, and his 2016 primary loss has not stopped him from maintaining a national presence which has included Appalachia. In 2017, he has made several high-profile visits to the region, including a televised town hall in McDowell County, West Virginia in March and last weekend’s anti-Trumpcare campaign swing through Pittsburgh and Charleston.
“A truly great nation is judged by how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable people amongst us,” Sanders told a crowd of about 2,000 people in Charleston at a late June rally against a Republican bill to replace and repeal the Obama-era Affordable Care Act.
Clearly, something in Appalachia resonates with Sanders and vice versa. His continued presence in the region raises the question of whether an emerging socialist movement, especially among young people, can make a dent in the political firewall that Republicans have built here over the last two decades. Is it possible that Democrats can win elections by running farther to the left?
Jack Deskins, a Charleston, West Virginia musician for whom the 2014 Freedom Industries spill on the Elk River was a crystallizing political moment, thinks so.
“I think that in the richest nation that’s ever lived, we should have healthcare for everybody, that people should not live in abject poverty, that people should have the right to organize in their workplaces, that we should have freedom of speech without any consequences from the government, and that we shouldn’t be sending our children off to fight wars that are really rich people’s wars,” Deskins said. “You say that and everyone calls you a radical, but I don’t think it’s anything outrageous. That appealed to people in West Virginia.”
Deskins worked on the Sanders campaign and joined the Democratic Socialists of America in May 2016. After the November election, he organized the Kanawha Valley Chapter, of which he is co-chair. Nine people attended the first meeting in January; the chapter now has 26 dues-paying members, and more who attend meetings. Since Sanders announced his candidacy in 2015, the DSA’s nationwide membership has doubled to more than 19,000 people. Besides Charleston, the organization has several other Appalachian chapters.
Deskins stresses that the Kanawha Valley DSA is part of a broader patchwork of organizations devoted to progressive causes, and that collaborative action has produced results beyond the reach of any single group. They helped organize the Charleston health care rally with a dozen other group — eventually attracting Sanders as a headliner and signal booster. Deskins said that he believes grassroots organizations contributed to the political pressure that led U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to come out against the current version of the Senate healthcare bill.
While the DSA and its partners in the West Virginia Progressive Alliance are currently focused on policy and legislation in Congress and at the state level, they’re also laying the groundwork to recruit and support candidates in future elections.
“We’re doing the grind work right now” to prepare for 2018 and beyond,” said Deskins. “Number one, we’re finding candidates who are going to organize around issues that actually matter in working families’ lives things like a livable wage, like childcare, like healthcare. Number two is about voters. There are 40-50 percent, 70 percent in some counties, of people who just don’t show up for elections. We have systematic disenfranchisement of working people, and the more marginal you are, the more that’s likely to occur. It’s harder and harder for you to go vote, and it’s hard for your vote to count.”
Once candidates are recruited, they face another challenge: Winning a primary.
“Bernie Democrats” aren’t a new phenomenon in 2017 — and the ones who ran last year didn’t find great success.
Jeff Kessler, a former state legislator from Moundsville, West Virginia ran as a self-proclaimed Bernie candidate who ran for the state’s Democratic nomination in the 2016 governor’s race. On the same day that Sanders won 51 percent of votes in the Democratic presidential primary — and in fact, with the exact same set of voters — Kessler finished third, with 23 percent of the vote to fine-and-tax-owing, coal running, Joe Manchin-endorsed Democrat Jim Justice’s 51 percent.
Kessler said he lost partly due to the candidacy of former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, with whom he split the progressive vote — and partly because he was tremendously outspent.
“I didn’t envision I’d be getting a billionaire Republican coal baron thrown into the race as a Democrat,” said Kessler. “At the end of the day, it’s tough to beat money. A lot of people, particularly in Appalachia, are not as well informed or get most of their information off the television. He clobbered me.”
Shane Assadzandi is a progressive trying to effect change from within the West Virginia Democratic Party. He says the party’s conservative wing, represented by standard bearers such as Justice and former governor and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin has dominated its leadership and direction to the detriment of its progressives.
“Conservative Democrats in this ‘West Virginia Democrat’ mindset have spent a lot of energy trying to suppress the progressive left-wing members of the party in the last 4-6 years,” said Assadzandi, “whether [it’s by] discouraging the voices of the activists or being selective in the candidates they back. The grassroots is definitely more progressive, without a doubt. The more conservative Democrats really don’t have a lot of the activist energy or movement behind them.”
Yet those conservative Democrats managed to win the fight in 2016’s primary elections, overtaking more progressive Sanders-esque candidates.
It wasn’t just in West Virginia. In southwest Virginia’s “Fighting 9th” congressional district, retired postal worker Bill Bunch of Tazewell County ran as the Bernie candidate but was defeated for the Democratic nomination by a conservative “Blue Dog,” who went on to get smoked 69-28 percent in November by the incumbent Republican. Undeterred, Bunch is running again this year for a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
“If you put the name socialist on it, you do not have a chance,” Bunch said, “even though most of the things people really like are socialist: social security, public highways, public schools, a publicly controlled power grid. I’ve talked to people here in the party and said, ‘Listen, you don’t know how much of a socialist you really are,’ and they get all tore up over it. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
Tom Perriello’s insurgent campaign to win the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor offers slightly more hope for those who identify with Sanders and the Democratic Socialists: Perriello lost statewide but he won Virginia’s Appalachian counties 60.2 percent to 39.8 percent. On the Republican side, Trump-like populist Corey Stewart also won Appalachia and fell just short of winning his party’s nomination.
Although Perriello was endorsed by Sanders, he’s not a precise gauge for that style of politics. Elected as a congressman in 2008, Perriello is as much an Obama Democrat as a Bernie Democrat. The insurgent nature of his campaign, however, as well as his populist rhetoric on class issues, made the Sanders comparison irresistible to national press following the election.
Roanoke political consultant Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who helped Virginia Democrats Mark Warner and Jim Webb attract rural voters to win statewide elections in 2001 and 2006, said Sanders appeals to voters as an angry anti-establishment populist, not as a socialist.
“I read a book called ‘Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun.’ One of its components is that when times are darkest for the tribe, they will always gravitate to the meanest, toughest, loudest sonnuvabitch in the tribe,” Mudcat said. “That’s the Trump phenomenon. There’s a lot of anger out here right now, but I don’t think a socialist agenda in the long run will help Democrats — not in rural America or in Appalachia. We’re too proud. And there ain’t many voices that can preach with a loud tough voice like Bernie Sanders in the Democratic Party.”
However, Scott Crichlow, associate professor of political science at West Virginia University, suggests that Democrats might be wise to test some Sanders-style socialism, especially in smaller-scale legislative races.
“At the legislative level, where grassroots support can matter more easily, there is every reason to think that Berniecrats do well in several districts,” Crichlow said. “People usually vote retrospectively, not prospectively, and because of that the 2018 races are likely to be, in many places, a referendum on Trump. In that environment, with that kind of target, it may be a good year to put progressive candidates forward.”
One conundrum for Appalachian Democrats would be the question of how their platform beyond economic issues lines up with the national party and regional culture. Will candidates running on leftist economic populism run into trouble with the progressive coalition if he or she is squishy on any of the traditional social wedge issues — God, guns and gays — or on coal? Sanders caught heat for a vote on gun control, for example, while Perriello was criticized for a vote on abortion coverage. Is there a point where other issues — health care or a $15 minimum wage — trump those cultural considerations?
When the phrase “ideological purity” is used in a question during an interview with him, Mudcat scoffs.
“Politics aren’t about intellectual ideas, they’re about visceral feelings,” he said. “If the message is not in line with visceral concerns, it’s not going to work. Coal doesn’t account for all the jobs in West Virginia, but it’s the culture. Anybody attempting to attack coal or that they don’t feel is sympathetic to coal ain’t gonna make it.”
Deskins said he believes Democrats can turn healthcare and Medicaid into winning issues that will outweigh those other concerns.
“Democrats should be running on their own wedge issues and saying look, the Republicans want to take Medicaid away from your family, from your neighbors, from your friends,” Deskins said. “If you’re here in Appalachia and say you don’t know someone covered by Medicaid, that’s not true. Democrats should be using that issue like a damn cudgel and beating Republicans with it in 2018.”
Voters don’t always have coherent public policy views, and even when they do, they don’t always vote based on that. It’s not the details of public policy that win voters; it’s appealing to their gut.
“Frankly I think there’s less the Democrats could do to move the needle than there is that Republicans could do to help them move it,” said western Virginia Del. Greg Habeeb of Salem. “Let’s say we get eight years of Trump and it’s a total unmitigated disaster for western Virginia. At that point you’re not running saying, ‘I’ve got this complicated Democratic position on government services.’ You run saying, ‘They suck, vote for me.’”
That may give Sanders supporters a glimmer of hope.
“It’s a lot easier to win by simply being anti-establishment than it is to win on the basis of detailed left-leaning economic policy proposals,” Crichlow said. “Much of this country has a generations-long entrenched antipathy toward those. But that said, with the right candidate and the right message — maybe simply call for raising the minimum wage, versus a raise to $15 — and in the right environment…sure, why not? Ken Hechler politics was very popular here once. It could rise again.”
A native of the Alleghany Highlands, Mason Adams (@MasonAtoms) is a contributing editor of 100 Days in Appalachia and 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.
Header photo by Kara Lofton / West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Data visualizations by Dave Mistich.