The nine-day teachers’ strike in West Virginia made headlines across the country, and some are wondering what the events mean for state’s political landscape. How did a widespread labor strike, a practice normally associated with Democrats, happen in a state that voted so heavily for Donald Trump?
We wanted to take a step back to explore how politics have been changing here over the past generation. West Virginia has been dubbed the heart of Trump Country, but politics here are anything but straightforward.
The strike wasn’t organized solely by Democrats or Republicans, or even union bosses. But some, like Angela Nottingham, a seventh-grade social studies teacher from Cabell County, said the action changed how they plan to vote this year. Nottingham said she switched from Independent to Democrat after watching some Senate Republicans fight against the pay increase teachers were demanding.
“I know there are a lot of people out there that are Republican and kind of vote with their party. I think a lot of people are gonna look back at who supported them. And I really do think they, and the people around them, and the people they influence, will vote for the people who helped us out,” Nottingham said.
In 2016, President Trump received nearly 70 percent of votes cast in West Virginia.
West Virginia has a Republican governor, and Republicans control both houses of the state Legislature.
And yet, more voters in the state are registered as Democrats than Republicans. In Wyoming County, for example, President Trump won 83 percent of votes, even though more than twice as many voters in this county are registered as Democrats, compared with Republicans.
Could Democrats gain back some ground in the Mountain State?
With the midterm election around the corner, we wanted to get a sense of where we’re headed, so West Virginia Public Broadcasting polled more than 900 teachers and school personnel in an anonymous, online survey. This was not a scientific poll designed by statisticians, but it did give us some interesting insights.
About half of the teachers we surveyed said they identify as Democrats, while nearly 30 percent said they are Republicans. A majority said they voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as their first choice for president in 2016.
A majority (36 percent) said they plan to re-elect U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. An overwhelming majority (97 percent) of those who live in the state’s Third Congressional District in southern West Virginia — the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, a Republican — said they plan to vote for Richard Ojeda.
Both Ojeda, who’s currently serving in the state Senate, and Manchin are Democrats. That is, West Virginia’s version of a Democrat.
A Different Kind of Democrat
Democrats in West Virginia held the majority in the state Legislature for more than 80 years. More than half of our governors have been Democrats. But, as political science professor Rob Rupp explained, the Democrats in the Mountain State have traditionally been a populist party, pro-labor and socially conservative.
Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, posited that three are three political parties in America: Republican, Democrat and West Virginia Democrat.
“And by that I mean you have kind of a hybrid party, a big tent where conservatives, moderates and liberals all joined,” unique to West Virginia.
Rupp has spent most of his career studying what he called “West Virginia’s slow-motion realignment towards the red” in this state, and he said that shift has been happening for a long time. But, he argued, it rose to the surface about 15 years ago. President Bill Clinton was fairly popular here, but Democrats on the national stage since have failed to resonate with voters in this pro-coal state.
“And now [Democrats] are realizing that to many West Virginia voters, the national Democratic Party is out of touch with the state voters,” Rupp said.
This shift didn’t happen overnight. Rupp and other political scientists said one reason for the change is the declining power of unions. Labor has had a strong influence on politics here since the 1930s, and labor unions have typically sided with Democrats.
But in West Virginia, Democrats are far more conservative than the national party: They’re pro-coal, and they usually side with conservatives on social issues, like gay rights, abortion and immigration.
Rupp said now we’re seeing the breakup of that hybrid, West Virginia-style Democrat, a change that could have national implications. West Virginia may be a bellwether for rural America, and for the national Democratic party.
“And now with the loss of power was seeing a struggle between, should the Democratic Party turn left or should it turn right, now that it suddenly finds himself in minority.”
But with the recent teachers’ strike, some people are wondering if the Democrats, could stand a chance of regaining power in West Virginia. And what kind of Democrats could get elected? Ones that lean progressive? Or will they need to look more like the West Virginia Democrats of the past?
One example of the traditional-style West Virginia Democrat is state Senator Richard Ojeda. He’s running for Congress in southern West Virginia and he says he voted for Trump, but he’s been disappointed by the President’s performance. He strongly supports labor unions, and was one of the teachers’ loudest supporters during the recent strike.
But if Democrats like Ojeda want to take back power in West Virginia and across Appalachia, they’ll have to figure out one big question: how to bring back jobs to coal country.
Former coal miner Nick Mullins, who blogs at The Thoughtful Coal Miner, said liberals haven’t done enough during the past decade to appeal to working class voters in Appalachia.
“To be frank and honest [Democrats] need to come off of their moral high horses and come back down to the level of the working class,” said Mullins, a registered Independent from southwest Virginia, who said he didn’t vote in the November 2016 election.
“The working class needs help. We’re facing longer hours or stagnant wages. People aren’t enjoying life right now because they’re having to work so hard and long to just have a little bit of happiness in their lives.”
This story was originally published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.