This is not, I readily confess, the development that will dominate the headlines on November 5, but I couldn’t help but notice recently that there is a sporting chance that, after this election, my old home state might no longer be represented by a single Democrat in the United States House of Representatives. So what, you say—it’s just West Virginia. Okay, maybe. But trust me: This idea would have been beyond inconceivable only a decade or so ago, and there’s an interesting and much broader story behind the change that has to do with deep cultural and economic anxieties, and I can’t help but wonder whether the Democrats can tap into them and attempt to ameliorate their effects.
First the facts. West Virginia has three congressional districts. The first, which contains the northern panhandle and my home town of Morgantown, is represented by Republican David McKinley, who first won in 2010 (by less than 1 percent) and was the first Republican to represent most of those areas since I was playing Little League. He is strongly favored to be reelected. The second district is an open seat, vacated by Republican Shelley Moore Capito to run for Senate. Tea Party Republican Alex Mooney is facing Democrat Nick Casey. They are basically tied (Casey’s in the hunt in part because Mooney is actually from Maryland; it’s complicated), but Mooney is getting lots of national money. In the third district, longtime Democratic incumbent Nick Joe Rahall, one of the few Lebanese-Americans roaming the halls of Congress, is facing a stiff challenge from a state senator named Evan Jenkins, who switched from D to R last year and can boast two important endorsements, from the Coal Association and the state’s right-to-life group, that don’t usually land in a non-incumbent’s lap.
Now, two of those races are close, and if the Democrats win them, the party would actually pick up a seat, so there goes my alarmism. But still, it could well be a GOP sweep, which is especially jarring when you throw in Capito, the Republican who’ll be taking over Jay Rockefeller’s seat (the state hasn’t had a Republican senator since 1958). That would leave Joe Manchin as the state’s only Democrat in Washington, and of course, on the coasts, lots of Democrats don’t think he’s much of a Democrat.
It’s really a stunning transformation. People don’t pay much attention to the state, but if they did, they’d know that West Virginia is the only—yes, only—state in the union that has gone in this century from deep blue to rock-ribbed red.
So what’s happened? No, it’s not as simple as the president is b-l-a-c-k. It’s the decline in union membership (a handful of men can now mine as much coal as hundreds used to). It’s the organizing strength of the NRA. It’s the less-discussed-but-pivotal inroads the Southern Baptist Convention has made into the state since the 1980s. It’s the fact that there are no real cities to speak of, not many people of color, only one large university, no hipsters (well, a few; I know some of them). I watched the transformation only as an occasional interloper on trips back home to see my folks, but even from that vantage point, things were pretty clear—the increasing proliferation of NASCAR paraphernalia in the stores next to the Mountaineer swag, the appearance in Morgantown of a Christian high school, and of course presidential vote totals (although Obama did carry my home county in 2008). We smart people in the big cities all agree that the right has lost the culture war. That may be so nationally. But West Virginia is the one place where the right won the culture war.
And so it’s a place of profound anxieties, cultural and economic. Being from Morgantown doesn’t give me much of a window on them. Morgantown is one of the nicest small cities in America (no, really) and has a diverse economy and diverse (by West Virginia standards) population.
The southern part of the state, which is really what outlanders think of when they bother to think of West Virginia, is where the anxieties run deeper. It’s a place in real trouble, and the people know it. Culturally, America has changed on them. The state is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Let’s just say that in some of those counties down there, I wouldn’t want to be the first guy to apply for one. And fossil fuels probably aren’t long for this world—there is still plenty of coal in them thar hills, as they say, but in 20 or 30 years, the way energy technologies are transforming, the world may not want it anymore.
I, you’ll be un-shocked to hear, do not think the Republican Party has any real answers for these people. The GOP will fight for coal, but at the same time its broader policies are all harmful to the state (aren’t many 2 percenters in West Virginia). What the state really needs is to figure out how to elbow its way into the tech economy. That requires investments, in schools and in infrastructure of both the physical and telecom varieties. And it means, yep, taxes.
I suppose there’s a chance that Hillary Clinton could win West Virginia, if Bill spends a lot of time there. But why would they bother? She won’t need its five measly electoral votes. I think it would be a grand thing if President Clinton, among her first acts, proposed something big and meaningful for precisely the people who didn’t vote for her (a Republican president should do the same). But that just isn’t likely, the way things are today. Politics is too expensive, and a new president has people to pay back.
No, we’re not sure it’s going to be President Clinton, but we are sure that the GOP is up against both the electoral college and demographic walls in a big way, and it may not win a presidential election for some time. Poor West Virginia: It stayed true to Democratic losers like Walter Mondale and Mike Dukakis but is completing its insistent makeover to red just as the Republicans are in danger of being a quasi-permanent out party.
There’s a great scene in the lovely film October Sky where the residents of Coalwood gather to watch Sputnik race by in the sky. One person speculates about the Russians dropping a bomb on the town. Another retorts: “I own’t know why anybody’d drop a bomb on ’is place. Be a waste of a perfectly good bomb.” It captured a worldview and fate that I hope the people from the poorer parts of the state can one day escape.