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2018 Midterms

Meet the W.Va. Women Challenging the Political Norm for Female Candidates

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Kendra Fershee, Talley Sergent and Carol Miller are all running for seats in Congress to represent West Virginia, joining a national surge of female candidates across the country. Photos of Fershee and Sergent: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia, Photo of Miller: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

West Virginians don’t vote for women.

Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District Kendra Fershee says that’s what a man told her on the campaign trail before the primary election in May of this year.

“[He] encouraged me to drop out of the race because I’m a woman, said I won’t be able to win because people won’t vote for me,” Fershee recalled.

Kendra Fershee, the Democratic nominee for West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, speaks at a candidate event in Morgantown, West Virginia, in October. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

From a historical perspective, the gentleman isn’t necessarily wrong. West Virginians have only sent two women to Washington to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito served in the House from 2001 to 2015 before taking her current seat in the Senate and Elizabeth Kee represented the state from 1951 to 1965. Kee was elected to the position six times after her husband, who served in the position from 1933 to 1951, died.

But unlike this gentleman predicted, when it comes to Fershee, the people did vote for her. In fact, in all three of the state’s Congressional districts, West Virginians will be able to vote for a woman on November 6.

In this second “Year of the Woman,” West Virginia could join the nation in voting more women into office.

Nationally, More Women are Running for Congress Than Ever Before

Political pundits deemed 1992 the first “Year of the Woman.” The year before, a Congressional panel of white men questioned Anita Hill, an African American law professor, over allegations of sexual harassment against then-Supreme Court nominee, now Justice Clarence Thomas.

Following the elections that year, the number of women holding a seat in Congress increased by two thirds, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

This year, CAWP data shows 235 women are on the ballot for a seat in the U.S. House and another 22 for Senate, a drastic increase over previous elections. A majority of those candidates are Democrats, like Fershee, and their ability to follow through with a general election win could mean major changes for the nation’s political priorities.

A screenshot of the data from the Center for American Women in Politics. Credit: CAWP/Rutgers University

Historically, though, there have been a number of barriers for women running for office. CAWP studies have shown that politically minded women tend to come from careers where they make less money, like teaching or social work, so not only do they lack the independent wealth, but they also lack a network of wealthy friends to help fund their campaigns.

Women are still seen as the primary caregivers for their families, so female candidates with children have had trouble winning elections in the past, and it typically takes being asked for a woman to step into a race.

But in 2018, CAWP’s Associate Director Jean Sinzdak says all of those things are changing. And the West Virginia women running for Congress prove it.

“Moms Do Hard Things”

Kendra Fershee never thought she would run for office, but after the 2016 election, she wanted to see new and more relatable leadership in her state and in her country. So, she tried to convince women who were active in her community to run for office.

Instead, what Fershee heard was, “It’s a great idea, but I think you should do it.”

Candidate for West Virginia’s 1st Congressional District Kendra Fershee attended a candidate forum in Grafton, West Virginia, on Oct. 16 to speak with local voters. Photo: Justin Hayhusrt/100 Days in Appalachia

The sentiment was met with hesitation when Fershee thought about her responsibilities as a mother and as a law professor at West Virginia University. She said she discussed the possibility with her husband and fretted over the impact to her family.

“[But] he finally just said, ‘Time out. Do you mean to tell me that you think it’s a bad thing for our children to see their mother run for Congress?’” Fershee recalled. “And that moment was very pivotal for me because I had been thinking about it all wrong.”

Over the course of her campaign, Fershee has not only embraced, but emphasized her identity as a mother. She believes that as a mom, she is in tune with what is going on in her community, especially in schools, and it helped her relate to a wide population of working West Virginia women.

“Moms do hard things and we need more moms and we need more moms doing hard things,” Fershee said.

That message, of being a hardworking mother, it’s being used in campaigns across the country this election cycle. Women have traditionally tried to downplay their role as a mother, Sinzdak said, but women in 2018 are using motherhood as an asset.

“The traditional advice had been to fit yourself into a mold of what the usual candidate looks like, but the usual candidate had been older and white and male,” Sinzdak said. “But what we’ve seen so far [in 2018] are ads where [the candidate says] this is one of the reasons that I’d be a good elected official, because I’m a mother of young children and I understand these issues in our community because of that.”

Nobody Asked Her to Run, But She’s Doing it Anyway

Talley Sergent isn’t exactly a political outsider.

The Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, Sergent has experience working for former U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the U.S. State Department and chaired Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign for president in West Virginia.

But when she decided to run for Congress, Sergent said she didn’t have the support of the national Democratic Party.

“Nobody asked me to run to be quite honest,” Sergent said, and, according to Sinzdak, that usually makes a difference when it comes to women running for office.

Candidate for the West Virginia 2nd Congressional District Talley Sergent speaks sits at a lunch counter at the Smokehouse in Charleston, West Virginia, speaking to a potential voter who works in the restaurant. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

CAWP research has proven that women will enter a political race in much higher numbers when they are asked to by a political influencer– an elected official or political party representative– but for men, being asked matters very little.

“They don’t necessarily care about whether or not [political influencers] like them,” Sinzdak said.”

This year, however, Sinzdak said, “We’re seeing women more likely to say, ‘well I’m not going to wait to be asked, I’m just going to go do it.’ I think that is a cultural shift that we see happening.”

But where Sergent does conform to the traditional mold of female candidates is in her passion for creating change in one specific policy area: health care.

Right now, the American healthcare system is under an all-out assault by the Congress. [The U.S. House] voted over 50 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act that would take away some protections for people with pre-existing conditions and would actually hurt West Virginia more than any other state,” Sergent said.

Aside from her focus on fixing the nation’s health care system, Sergent has also put an emphasis on bi-partisan politics as she campaigns through the state’s largest geographic district, which stretches from the banks of the Ohio River in Jackson County across to the tip of the Eastern Panhandle.

She believes politicians in Washington put too much focus on driving a specific party’s political agenda and not enough on the real issues, but when it comes to Pres. Trump, Sergent said she will work with him.

If Donald Trump is doing right by West Virginia, I will support that. If he’s not, you better believe I’m going to stand up to him like any other West Virginia woman would,” Sergent said.

The Republican Who’s Bucking the Trend

In as much as Sergent’s name is known in West Virginia’s Democratic political circles, so is the name of Carol Miller, except on the Republican side of the aisle.

Del. Carol Miller, Republican candidate for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District, speaks on the floor of the West Virginia House of Delegates. Photo: Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

From Huntington, Miller is a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, a seat she held for 10 years before deciding to run in West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District. Miller has held leadership positions at the state level within her party, having chaired the West Virginia House of Delegates’ Committee on Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development and served as both the Assistant Majority Leader and Majority Whip, positions of influence in the chamber.

On her campaign website, Miller writes she’s running for Congress “to support West Virginia values and support President Trump,” but she has rarely given interviews or made public speeches during her campaign.

Of the three women running for Congressional seats on West Virginia’s general election ballot, Miller is the only one who has run for office before, she’s the only one not challenging an incumbent Congressman and she’s the only Republican.

But in a year where a historic number of women are running for office, a majority of those women don’t have a lot in common with Miller when it comes to political stances.

“There’s a surge of women candidates running for Congress and they are mostly all Democrats,” Sinzdak said, “and it’s not unusual for the underdog party to be the more motivated party going into midterm elections, but it’s just the degree to which they are motivated.”

Just 52 Republican women are running for Congress of the 235 on the ballot. Sinzdak said that could be because of motivation, but also because the majority party tends to back its already seated incumbents, therefore, more Democratic women are stepping up to run against male Congressmen already holding their seats.

But, according to Sinzdak, it also has to do with representation within the party’s themselves.

Democratic women far outpace Republican women in terms of their representation within their party’s caucus, and that’s been a trend that’s been going on for a long time,” Sinzdak said.

Women in Office

Talley Sergent, the Democratic candidate in West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District, works in her Charleston campaign headquarters. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/100 Days in Appalachia

Despite the challenges they may face on the campaign trail, Sinzdak said voters will choose women just as often as they do men when they actually put their names on the ballot.

And aside from having a government that is demographically representative of our country, Sinzdak said there are some great outcomes when women are elected.

“We know that women office holders bring a new perspective to the policy-making process,” she said. “They’re more likely to bring in marginalized groups to the conversation or groups that have not otherwise been engaged.”

Women are also more likely to reach across party lines and attempt to build consensus, “which is something that we all really need more than ever these days,” Sinzdak added.

This story was produced as part of a social justice reporting collaboration between Morgan State University’s College of Global Journalism and Communication and the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.

2018 Midterms

Why the Perfect Red-State Democrat Lost

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Taylor Sappington in Nelsonville, Ohio. Sappington ran in the midterm elections for state representative of Ohio’s 94th district as a Democrat. Photo: Ty Wright for The New York Times

Taylor Sappington is exactly the kind of candidate his party should want in Ohio. But he couldn’t get union support.

Taylor Sappington heard the call like so many other Democrats in the year after Nov. 8, 2016. He had seen Donald Trump coming, homing in on his little town of Nelsonville, Ohio, in the state’s impoverished Appalachian southeast. The town of 5,300 people had voted for Barack Obama twice by large margins.

Trump was Nelsonville’s pick in 2016, though it was more by default than acclamation. Trump won there with less than a majority, with 30 percent fewer votes than Obama had gotten four years earlier.

Sappington, a 27-year-old Ohio native, took this as evidence that Nelsonville was not beyond redemption, that the town where he had grown up in hard circumstances — the son of a single mother who was for a time on food stamps, living deep in the woods in a manufactured home — wasn’t really Trump country.

Not so long ago at all, Ohio was considered the quintessential swing state — it had, after all, voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election starting with 1964. Something happened this decade, though. The 2010 national “shellacking” of Democrats left a particularly strong mark in Ohio. The Republicans who assumed control of Columbus pulled off an aggressive gerrymandering of federal and state legislative districts. In 2012, when Obama won the state for the second time, Republicans held 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats despite winning only 52 percent of the total House vote.

The state’s makeup had been trending red, too. At a time when the share of white voters without college degrees — who are fast becoming the Republican base — decreased nationwide, it held strong in Ohio. The state was drawing relatively few immigrants, its education system was sliding in national rankings and, with its smaller cities and towns falling far behind thriving Columbus, it was losing many young college grads to jobs out of state.

Not Taylor Sappington, though. He wanted to stay. He had gotten hooked on national politics in high school, around the time he read a book on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. And he had gotten out of Nelsonville, winning nearly a full ride to George Washington University.

Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, at a campaign event on March 3, 2008, in Nelsonville, Ohio. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

But he felt out of place in D.C. — the wealthy students who abused expensive drugs and thought nothing of paying big cover charges at clubs, the dead-eyed people in suits rushing down the sidewalks — and he’d come back to finish at Ohio University, down the road from Nelsonville, in Athens. He took a break from school to work for Obama’s 2012 campaign in Ohio. And even before he had his diploma in hand, he’d run for, and won, a seat on the Nelsonville City Council.

The council seat came with only a $100 monthly stipend. So Sappington kept working as a waiter at the Texas Roadhouse in Athens. Later on, he added another gig: fixing broken smartphone screens in partnership with his younger brother, who drove an hour each way to work as a correctional officer at the prison in Chillicothe.

Sappington was content to stick with this combination for a while. He scratched out a living while pushing his agenda on the council: finding the money to fix the town’s rutted roads, demolishing vacant homes, pushing for a mayoral system of government.

Then came 2016, which gave Trump an eight-percentage-point win in Ohio and swept in a new state representative for the district that included Nelsonville, which had been held by a Democrat for the previous eight years.

It was now held by a young Republican, Jay Edwards, who had been three years ahead of Sappington at Nelsonville-York High. He was a star quarterback who’d gone on to play linebacker at Ohio University, the scion of a prosperous local family.

Donald Trump at a campaign event on Oct. 13, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Sappington was still mourning the election when, just a few weeks later, he confronted darkness of a different order. His longtime boyfriend — a gentle autodidact who had taught himself to build furniture and musical instruments when not working at Ruby Tuesday — committed suicide, at age 25.

At the next council meeting, Sappington spoke about the death, and the need for better mental health services in southeast Ohio. Edwards was in the audience, as both Sappington and another council member recall, and stood up to leave in the middle of his remarks. (Edwards declined to comment on the record about that meeting or the race.)

A few months later, Sappington suffered another loss: the suicide of one of his cousins. A high school friend, a former service member, was succumbing to opiate addiction.

The gloom seemed relentless. Sappington decided the best way to fight it was to have something else to think about. Late last year, he made up his mind to run against Edwards, to reclaim the 94th House District in the Ohio statehouse for the Democrats.

He knew it would be a challenge. He was young. He would be vastly outspent. On the other hand, the district had been blue until very recently, and 2018 was promising to be a strong Democratic year. And he could, at least, count on support from unions and national progressive groups.

What he didn’t reckon with was that those organizations were already making a very different sort of calculus about his district, and about Ohio in general.

In December 2017, with the help of students at Ohio University, Sappington produced an arresting two-minute campaign video that included drone footage panning over Nelsonville, with its handsome town square lined with semi-abandoned brick buildings. “Why is it that so many will grow up without parents because of this drug crisis? Why is it that our graduates struggle to find good-paying jobs?” he said in the video. “So much of this seems invisible in Columbus.”

The video was so powerful that the Ohio House Democratic Caucus played it at a fundraiser in Columbus. Sappington learned of this secondhand, he said, because he wasn’t invited to the event. In general, he was having difficulty getting assistance from party leaders in Columbus, who seemed to be ranking candidates’ eligibility for support based in large part on the money they’d been able to raise. It wasn’t easy for a waiter in the poorest corner of the state to get people to write him checks, but Sappington had been prepared for that challenge.

What he hadn’t been prepared for was the lack of organizational support. Progressive groups in Washington and New York were focused mostly on congressional seats — never mind that it was state legislatures that would determine congressional lines for the next decade.

An early voter casts her ballot at the Athens County Board of Elections office in Athens, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But most confounding were the unions. One by one, they started supporting Edwards. And not just the building-trades unions, which sometimes side with Republicans, but the Service Employees International Union and the public sector unions — AFSCME, the Ohio Education Association and Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. The only endorsements Sappington received were from the National Association of Social Workers and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

He was stunned. He was about as pro-union as one could be. In his video, he had mentioned his earlier activism against the law that Ohio Republicans had pushed through in 2011, eliminating collective bargaining for public employees, which was later overturned by referendum. His mother had been active in AFSCME; his brother belonged to the Civil Service Employees Association. And Sappington himself was a low-wage service worker. Yet he was losing labor support to a Republican who had supported a state budget that effectively reduced funding for education and who was a staunch opponent of abortion rights, a position at odds with many public employee union members.

What he learned when he asked around, and what I later confirmed, was that the unions were, in many cases, making a grimly pragmatic decision in his race and others around the state. The Democrats had fallen to such a woeful level in Ohio state government that unions felt as if they had no choice but to make friends, or at least nonenemies, with some Republicans, in hopes of staving off anti-union measures such as “right-to-work” legislation and elimination of prevailing-wage standards.

For years, unions in the Midwest have rightly prided themselves on delivering the Democrats far higher margins among white working-class union members than among their nonunion brethren. But Trump had strained that bond in some unions, drawing support from many members even as their leaders had remained nominally committed to Hillary Clinton. Most unions were back on board with the Democrats in Midwestern federal and statewide races this year. In state legislative races in Ohio, though, unions hedged their bets.

The Ohio Education Association, for instance, endorsed 13 Republicans in state House races and three in State Senate races, while staying neutral in some others.

“If we were just looking at this as a partisan exercise and ‘to the winner go the spoils,’ we’d have been on the outside looking in, and we can’t let that happen,” said Scott DiMauro, vice president of the Ohio Education Association. “Republicans have supermajorities in both houses, and we’ve got to work with both parties to make progress on key issues.”

Joe Weidner, communications director for AFSCME’s statewide Council 8, gave a similar rationale. “We don’t just push the button for the Democrat,” he said. “It’s for the people who are behind us and will support us and we’ll support them. Party is important for us; we align a lot with the Democrats. But we also have Republicans we align with.”

Seen from one side, this was realpolitik. Seen from another, it was self-fulfilling fatalism, consigning the unions’ Democratic allies to permanent minority status.

Sappington forged on without the unions. His campaign’s slogan: “Health Care. Infrastructure. Integrity.” He had the help of a dedicated band of supporters, including an Ohio University student, Jordan Kelley, who was on leave from his studies while he saved money for his final semesters working at Buffalo Wild Wings. Bit by bit, Sappington raised money, bringing in about $80,000. That was enough for radio ads, postage for thousands of handwritten postcards and stipends for campaign workers.

But it was far less than the $430,000 that Edwards had raised since 2016, nearly half of which was from unions. He shared much of this largess with others in his party, which meant the unions’ money was also helping Republicans who were less pro-labor than Edwards.

In August, Sappington got the ultimate affirmation of his candidacy: He was one of 81 candidates across the entire country endorsed by Obama. That imprimatur cast the unions’ position in an even starker light: They were now lined up behind a Republican against a Democrat endorsed by the still-popular ex-president.

Other organizational backing remained slow in coming. The state House Democratic Caucus sent a young campaign manager and paid half of his salary, but he was ill-suited to rural organizing and he stayed only six weeks. Sappington struggled to get Democratic candidates for statewide office to campaign alongside him in the district. One national progressive group whose help he had sought sent no money, but did send, as a gesture of moral support, a package that included nuts and dried fruit.

On the night before the election, when other candidates might have done final phone-banking, Sappington had to report to Texas Roadhouse for a staff meeting on new food-safety measures. The next day, he traveled around the district to check on turnout levels. At night he headed to a vacation cabin in the woods that he had rented to watch election returns. His friends and family assembled to eat his mom’s chili and watch MSNBC.

Sappington sat with a laptop, monitoring the numbers trickling in from around the 94th District. Athens had turned out strongly, and he’d racked up big majorities there. But he’d been swamped in the rural areas. Edwards’ margin was the exact same as it had been against a different Democratic opponent two years ago: 58 percent to 42 percent.

The numbers were bleak for Democrats across the state. Sherrod Brown had won re-election to the Senate against a flawed opponent, by about six percentage points, but he was an anomaly. Democrats had not managed to win a single one of those gerrymandered congressional seats. They still held only four of 16, despite winning 48 percent of the congressional vote. They had lost not only the election for governor but for every other statewide office.

They’d picked up only four seats in the state House and lost one in the Senate, leaving Republican supermajorities in both chambers — this despite Democrats having won nearly a majority of total votes in those races, a sign of just how effectively gerrymandered districts were. In a way, the Democrats’ failure to make big gains had affirmed the unions’ self-protective strategy; but that failure had been partly abetted by the unions themselves.

There was another aspect, though, to the failure of the unions, state party leaders and progressive organizations to strongly support candidates like Taylor Sappington. He is a native of small-town Ohio, working-class not only in his roots but in his own livelihood: exactly the sort of elected official whom Democrats say they need to cultivate in areas where the party is losing ground.

At 9:45 p.m., Sappington slipped out of the cabin to call Jay Edwards and concede the race.

When he came back into the cabin, his face was drawn. He said that Edwards hadn’t immediately known who was calling, and a hard conversation was made harder.

“Hey, Jay,” he recalled saying. “It’s Taylor Sappington.”

“Taylor who?” said Edwards.

This story was co-published with The New York Times. It was originally published by ProPublica.

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2018 Midterms

One Goes R and One Goes D: Two ‘Most Rural’ House Districts Flip

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Maine’s 2nd Congressional District, a race between U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin, right, and state Rep. Jared Golden, left, is the second most rural district in the country.

Democrats defeated an incumbent Republican in the rural New York’s 19th district. Republicans returned the favor in a rural district with an open seat in Minnesota. Maine’s rural congressional districts has yet to be decided.

Democrats won a majority Tuesday in the U.S. House of Representatives that includes at least three of the top 20 most rural congressional districts in the country. A fourth remains too close to call.

The 2018 midterms demonstrated continued polarization between rural and urban voters, in many cases at or near the level of the 2016 presidential election. In eastern Kentucky’s 5th District, the most rural in the country, with 76 percent living in rural areas, incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers cruised to an easy re-election, 78.9 percent to 21.1 percent—nearly as much of a margin as Donald Trump’s 79.6 percent to 17.5 percent win over Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Rural America is not a politically homogeneous region, however, and the varied results among the 20 most rural U.S. House districts reflect that.

Democrats flipped at least one seat, New York’s 19th district, as Democratic newcomer Antonio Delgado beat incumbent U.S. Rep. John Faso, 49.8 percent to 47.6 percent, according to the New York Times. Delgado only won three counties in the 63-percent-rural district, tied with three others as the eighth most rural in the U.S. Delgado’s thumping of Faso in Ulster County, in the southern part of the district nearest to New York City, sealed the victory.

Democrats may also have a chance to flip Maine’s 2nd congressional district, which is 72 percent rural, second most in the U.S. On Wednesday morning, incumbent U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin held 46.2 percent of the vote to Democratic challenger Jared Golden’s 45.7 percent. Because neither candidate reached a 50-percent-plus-one majority, Maine’s brand new ranked-choice voting system comes into play.

Voters ranked all the candidates on their ballots. Since neither Poliquin nor Golden won a majority, the last-place finisher—one of two independents on the ballot—will be eliminated, and majority for Poliquin or Golden, the other independent, who finished third, will be eliminated and her voters’ ballots recounted.

Republicans also flipped a seat among the top 20 most rural districts, with Republican Pete Stauber winning Minnesota’s open 8th congressional district by 50.7 percent to 45.2 percent. Democrat Joe Radinovich won precincts around Minnesota’s exurbs and the city of Duluth, but it was not enough to defeat Stauber in the rural Iron Range, where the Trump administration’s tariffs have actually boosted the iron mining industry.

Republicans also successfully defended two rural seats in open districts that were targeted by national Democrats. In southern West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district—tied for 15th most rural in the U.S.—Democratic State Senator Richard Ojeda, who won the attention of national media for his bare-knuckled populism, well outran Hillary Clinton’s 23.3 percent two years ago, but still fell short to state House Del. Carol Miller, who won 56.4 percent to 43.6 percent. Farther east, Democrats hoped to pick up Virginia’s sprawling 5th district, tied with three others as third most rural in the U.S., where Republican incumbent Tom Garrett abruptly announced alcoholism and retirement in late May. Although Democrat Leslie Cockburn won metro portions of the district in Charlottesville and Danville, she was defeated by Republican distillery owner Denver Riggleman, 53.3 percent to 46.7 percent.

Democrats also successfully defended a once-targeted district in Minnesota’s 7th district, whose agricultural economy has been hurt by Trump’s tariffs. By a 52.1 precent to 47.9 percent margin, 28-year incumbent U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson won re-election in a district that went 62-31 for Trump—the most in any district held by a Democrat. With Democrats winning a House majority, Peterson is expected to become chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture for the fourth time.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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2018 Midterms

A Data Dive Into The Ohio Valley Midterm Election Results

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Teachers hold signs and wave at motorists on Cheat Road on Election Day, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, outside Morgantown, W.Va. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

The “Blue Wave” that broke in some midterm races around the country hit a “Red Wall” in the Ohio Valley, and while the Democrats will take control of the House in Washington, the partisan makeup of the Congressional delegations for Kentucky, Ohio, and West Virginia remains unchanged.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

In the region’s two Senate races, Democrats managed to hold on to Senate seats in Ohio and West Virginia, states that voted for President Trump two years ago. In House races, some deeply red parts of the region saw very competitive races in areas where voters went heavily for Trump in 2016, but no House seats “flipped” party control in the three states.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Ohio Valley ReSource data reporter Alexandra Kanik created these maps to provide a comparison of the 2018 and 2016 election outcomes in the region and to provide some insight into how the vote relates to the socioeconomic conditions in the region.

The county-by-county data show the vote results compared to some important indicators, such as poverty, unemployment, and the percentage of people who have been able to obtain health care coverage.

Health care concerns loom large in a region with some of the poorest health outcomes in the country. And despite a robust national economy, many parts of the Ohio Valley still suffer persistent poverty and higher than average unemployment. Those conditions could explain why these states that voted heavily for President Trump in 2016 showed more mixed results in this year’s Congressional races.

Here’s how the midterm elections played out compared to key data on the region’s health and wealth.

Issues And Races

Democratic incumbents Sen. Sherrod Brown in Ohio and Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia retained their seats in states Trump won in 2016. Both Brown and Manchin campaigned hard on health care concerns and with the support of organized labor, zeroing in on household and workplace concerns.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Manchin targeted healthcare concerns (sometimes literally, as in this ad). He tapped into the anxiety among many West Virginians who have pre-existing conditions that could make it difficult to get health coverage without the protections offered by the Affordable Care Act.

The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that if protections for those with pre-existing conditions were eliminated that would leave roughly a third of non-elderly adults in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia without affordable health care. That’s about 881,000 in Kentucky, 1.2 million in Ohio, and 392,000 in West Virginia.

The expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act greatly expanded health care coverage for residents in the three-state region.

Unions representing miners, teamsters, ironworkers, bakers, and many other workers and retirees worry that their pensions are in shaky condition, and both Brown and Manchin made support for pensions a priority. Retired union miners alone number more than 33,000 in West Virginia and Ohio.

Other national political events late in the campaign also likely played a role in the region’s races. For example, Manchin was the lone Democrat in the Senate to vote for the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik/Ohio Valley ReSource

In some of the region’s most closely watched House races, such as Kentucky’s 6th District and West Virginia’s 3rd District, Democrats performed well in places that Trump won handily in 2016. But it was not enough for Democratic hopefuls Amy McGrath, in Kentucky, and Richard Ojeda in West Virginia. Both drew on their military backgrounds and emphasized labor and health concerns to appeal to red district voters. But incumbent Andy Barr narrowly held on in central Kentucky, and in southern West Virginia State Del. Carol Miller fended off Ojeda to claim an open seat.

Power Split

But even as the region’s Congressional delegations remain largely unchanged, those lawmakers will be returning to a radically different Washington.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky will enjoy a slightly larger advantage in the Senate due to Republican victories in states such as Indiana, Missouri, and North Dakota. And the Ohio  Valley’s handful of Democratic House members will enjoy new influence as members of the majority on important committees, something their party has not been able to do for eight years.

The next Congress will not only be divided with different party control of the House and Senate, each chamber will also reflect the sharp political divisions on display in the midterm races. Many of the remaining moderates in both parties lost. Republican House members in more moderate suburban districts were the most frequent losers, and several Democratic Senators in red states were defeated.

Sen. Manchin may well find himself feeling like a bit of an endangered species, a moderate Democrat, as the Republican majority lurches further to the right and his own caucus sorts out internal divisions.

Meanwhile, Ohio Valley voters will be looking for action on several pressing issues related to the concerns they took to the polls and the measures of well-being reflected on these maps. For example, the clock is ticking on a proposal to shore up shaky pensions and a fund to support black lung benefits for sick coal miners. Thousands of people are anxious about the future of their health care and the future of their communities struggling to turn the economic corner and overcome a deadly opioid crisis.

But the emerging political landscape in Washington is not one that promises to deliver much meaningful legislation.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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