The Mountain State is having a moment. Joe Manchin is the most powerful U.S. senator in America, and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice is earning plaudits for his handling of vaccines and support for wearing masks. It’s a remarkable turnaround for a state you hardly ever think of (or when you do, it’s not good). Now, the Rodney Dangerfield of states is finally getting some much-needed respect.
It’s been a long time coming. When I was growing up in nearby Western Maryland, we mocked West Virginia, which was just across the Potomac. Every region seems to have a neighbor that allows them to feel superior (in Texas, they make “Aggie” jokes)—and West “By God!” Virginia served this purpose for those of us growing up in the DC media market..
In the 1980s, DC101’s popular shock jock, the Greaseman, even had a recurring bit called “West Virginia Boy.” The crude theme was premised on the assumption that the state was full of inbreds and yokels, not unlike the “Cletus” character on The Simpsons.
Today, I am one of these yokels—or, perhaps, proof the stereotype was wrong or is now outdated. After high school, I went to college in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, married a West Virginia girl, and moved to the D.C. area to try and make it big.
But during the time of COVID-19—after nearly two decades in the D.C. area—those country roads (and the lure of rural life) took us back home to a stunningly beautiful state. Some would even say it’s “almost heaven.” (Pace Jim Carrey, when it comes to West Virginia, that John Denver ain’t full of shit, man).
But who would have thought that, instead of my leaving the political capital of the world, my new home would become something akin to the new center of the political world? That might be a bit of a stretch, but only a little. Let’s start with Jim Justice, the coal baron and former Democrat who switched parties for Donald Trump, who has emerged as a competent governor with a commonsensical message.
As I write this, nearly 20 percent of West Virginians have had at least one dose of the vaccine. Last month, The New York Times noted that “West Virginia has used 83 percent of its allotted vaccines, among the best in the nation.” To the degree that there is a holdup, the problem reflects a lack of supply of the vaccine, not with its distribution.
If only Nixon can go to China, then it could be that only a corpulent billionaire with a cornpone accent could slam fellow Republican governors for lifting mask mandates as simply trying to signal a “macho thing.” It works, because Justice (the state’s only billionaire) has a folksy look and friendly charm (think Haley Barbour) that belies his competent vaccine rollout. In his recent appearance on Face The Nation he warned against prematurely letting our guard down on COVID with the colorful saying, “One robin doesn’t make spring.” (One of his even more colorful sayings was probably just a computer glitch, but, regardless, has become a fun meme.)
Despite being a friend of Donald Trump’s, Justice has been a fairly blunt COVID hawk. “The way he presents himself, he never got blowback from Trump for doing that. I think that helps,” says Steven Allen Adams, a West Virginia reporter and columnist for Ogden Newspapers.
Meanwhile, with a 50-50 Democratically controlled Senate, Manchin has emerged as arguably the most powerful U.S. senator in the nation—the swing vote. When he first ran for state governor in the oughts, Democrats had close to 60 percent of registered voters in the state. Today, Manchin is the last statewide elected Democrat, with last month marking the first time registered Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the state.
But Manchin has broad appeal, feels like an authentic West Virginian, and, maybe more importantly, is tough and stubborn. “I know there are some in the Beltway that occasionally float the scenario of him switching to a Republican,” says Adams, “I can tell you that will never happen. Joe Manchin is a West Virginian Democrat through and through.”
This stubbornness also applies to standing up to the national leaders of his own party—and the progressives on his party’s left. And, I should confess that, as a conservative institutionalist, his insistence that he would never support nuking the filibuster (“Jesus Christ, what don’t you understand about ‘never’?”), coupled with his help killing the $15 minimum wage hike (which would have been horrible for the state’s struggling restaurants and small businesses), has made me proud—while simultaneously angering progressives who wonder why this one guy from this little state wields so much leverage. Manchin’s influence reflects the desires of the Founders. West Virginia is the kind of state that could be easily forgotten: a low-population state with an economy reliant on an outdated product (coal). But because the Constitution is affirmative action for small states, West Virginia can force the federal government to pay attention to its needs.
Or pay for its needs, as the case may be. When Democrats decided to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package via reconciliation, they had to win the vote of every single Democrat. As part of the negotiations, Manchin was able to secure more than $8 billion to fund West Virginia hospitals. On top of that, in a press release, Manchin touted, “West Virginia alone will receive approximately $140 million for broadband expansion, $152 million for emergency rental assistance, and $1.34 billion for our schools and childcare facilities. Every city, town, village and county in the state will receive funding to rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and support essential frontline workers. A vast majority of West Virginians will also receive $1,400 stimulus checks.”
On this, Manchin and Justice are in agreement. Just last month, Justice urged Congress to “go big” and not worry about the deficit. Although West Virginia has changed a lot, its desire for politicians who bring home the bacon hasn’t—Robert C. Byrd, namesake of the so-called “Byrd rule” on filibusters, wasn’t called the king of pork for nothing.
Here is where this column’s tidy narrative begins to fray: the two men LOATHE each other. Right now, they are fighting over Justice’s plan to eliminate the state’s income tax , a policy that could lure other denizens of the DMV westward. But it goes much deeper than that. Manchin, who runs the state’s Democratic Party and recruited Justice to run for governor to match the Trump zeitgeist, feels slighted by the governor’s party switch—and understandably so. “Not only did Justice switch parties without telling Manchin first,” writes Salena Zito at the Washington Examiner, “he also fired Manchin’s wife Gayle,” who was the secretary for education and arts.
But aside from this personal feud, these two men—and I shouldn’t leave out West Virginia Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, who has the ear of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—are helping elevate West Virginia’s reputation and significance in the American political conversation. (And I should also note, the most important West Virginia data point is that counting Michael Tomasky, two of the Daily Beast’s marquee columnists have ties to the state.)
Of course, merely garnering attention isn’t enough. Lots of politicians these days get attention for all the wrong reasons (prior to COVID, Justice would have fit into that category). These days, Justice and Manchin are making news without making the state a laughing stock—and that means a lot.
“It was only a few years ago, if you heard about West Virginia on the national news, it was usually on account of our obesity rate. We had one city, Huntington, that had one of the days with the most drug overdose deaths... Huntington has been able to turn around that reputation pretty quickly... We really are almost a test bed, to some extent,” Adams says. “I think good things are in store for West Virginia.”
For now, at least, West Virginia’s statewide officials are working hard and getting the job done, like so many of the Mountain State’s residents. They’re wild. They’re wonderful. They’re real. And they’re spectacular.