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The first congressional delegation from the new state of West Virginia was seated when the 38th Congress convened in the middle of the Civil War on December 7, 1863. Peter Van Winkle from Parkersburg and Waitman T. Willey from Morgantown had been elected by the West Virginia legislature to be the first U.S. senators. Jacob B. Blair of Parkersburg (First District), William G. Brown of Kingwood (Second District), and Kellian V. Whaley of Point Pleasant (Third District) were elected by popular vote as the first three representatives.

The U.S. Constitution directs that each state have two senators regardless of population size. The full term of a senator is six years. To stagger the election of senators, the Constitution divides the Senate into three even-numbered groups or classes. The first West Virginia senators, Van Winkle and Willey, drew lots to determine in which class or election cycle each would participate, Van Winkle winning a full six-year term, to expire in 1869, and Willey a term to expire in 1865, after only two years. Willey was subsequently elected for a full six-year term and served until 1871.

Thirty-three men have served West Virginia as U.S. senators, and in 2014 the state elected its first woman senator. One senator, Matthew M. Neely, resigned his seat, which he did in January 1941 after being elected governor. Six senators died in office, and five of these seats were filled temporarily by appointment from the governor until an election could be held. None of the appointed senators was subsequently elected. The state legislature elected U.S. senators until the 1912 passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which required that senators be elected by the direct or popular vote of the people. West Virginia’s first popularly elected senator was Howard Sutherland, elected in 1916 with 50.1 percent of the vote.

The vast majority of the elected senators served either six or 12 years, while five served 18 years or more, including Stephen B. Elkins (1895-1913) and Harley M. Kilgore (1941-1959). The longest-serving senators were elected and reelected in the latter half of the 20th century, when the Democratic Party became dominant in the state. Jay Rockefeller (1985-2015) will have been been in office 30 years upon his retirement. Jennings Randolph served more than 26 years (1958-1985). Robert C. Byrd (1958-2010) was the longest-serving senator in American history and at the time of his death the longest-serving member of Congress as a whole. Byrd was elected to the House of Representatives in 1952, 1954 and 1956, then first elected to the Senate in 1958 and reelected to a ninth consecutive Senate term in 2006. Byrd died in office in 2010.

Following Byrd’s death, Governor Joe Manchin named Carte Goodwin to the Senate seat. After taking the oath of office on July 20, 2010, Goodwin, who was then 36 years old, became the youngest senator serving at the time. Manchin defeated Republican challenger John Raese in a special election on November 2, 2010, and served out the remainder of Byrd’s term. Manchin was elected to a full six-year term on November 6, 2012.

With her 2014 election to replace the retiring Jay Rockefeller, Shelley Moore Capito becomes the first woman chosen to represent West Virginia in the U.S. Senate.

The Constitution directs that each state have a number of members in the House of Representatives based upon its population size. The Constitution further directs that a census be taken every 10 years to count the population, and this count is used to allocate the number of representatives for each state. The term of each representative is two years, and the entire House is elected every two years.

The West Virginia population rose steadily from the 1870 census, the first after creation of the state, until reaching its peak in the 1950 census. The size of the West Virginia delegation in the House likewise rose, from the original three to a maximum of six from the 1910s through the 1950s. In the latter half of the 20th century, the population declined in some decades and in others showed only slow growth compared with the rest of the nation. The number of West Virginia representatives consequently declined during the period from six to three, reaching the latter number after the 1990 census.

As of 2014, 96 men and two women have served West Virginia in the House of Representatives. As in the U.S. Senate, those elected in the second half of the 20th century generally have served the longest. Harley O. Staggers Sr. of the old Second District served from 1949 to 1980. Nick Joe Rahall of the Third District (1977-2015) served longer than any other U.S. representative in West Virginia’s history.

Throughout West Virginia history, congressional representatives have been elected from single-member districts. However, in two elections, 1912 and 1914, one additional at-large representative was elected statewide until a new redistricting law could be passed to increase the districts from five to six in accordance with the 1910 census. States draw their own congressional districts. To pass a congressional redistricting law, the West Virginia House of Delegates, Senate, and governor must all approve, as is the case in all state statutes. If the governor and the two chambers of the legislature are all controlled by the same political party, then this party can draw districts to favor itself. Historically, West Virginia redrew its congressional districts only when a change in the number of representatives was required. However, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1960s mandating districts of roughly equal population, West Virginia has passed a congressional redistricting law after every census to adjust district boundaries even if the number of districts did not change.

West Virginia’s congressional politics reflects the state’s history and location. For the first 100 years, West Virginia was a border state, between a solid Republican North and a solid Democratic South. West Virginia politics was born at the time of the Civil War. The northern Ohio Valley cities had been influenced greatly by the emerging anti-slavery Republican Party in the late 1850s and early 1860s. But its Virginia roots also influenced the new state. In fact, Western Virginia had sent almost all Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives from the mid-1840s to the Civil War. In the early years after the creation of West Virginia, the best party identification for the new state’s senators and representatives was Unionists or Unconditional Unionists, a mixture of anti-secession and pro-Union Democrats, Republicans, and those sympathetic to the Republican Party. After the Civil War, most of West Virginia’s national representation slowly identified with the Republican Party.

By the mid-1870s, the Democrats had gained supremacy in West Virginia, electing both senators and all three representatives. This Democratic supremacy lasted until the 1894 elections, following the financial Panic of 1893. This economic depression occurred when the Democrats were in control nationally, and in reaction the North, the West, and the border states shifted to the Republicans for almost 40 years. For the most part, this was the case in West Virginia.

The next political party switch came with the Great Depression of the 1930s. The October 1929 stock market crash occurred while the Republicans were in control. By 1932, voting patterns had realigned again in the urban North, the West, and the border states, this time from Republican to Democrat. Once more, West Virginia was affected by the national trend. Although nationally the Republican Party dominated presidential elections at the end of the 20th century and the Republicans gained control of the U.S. House and the Senate in the historic elections of 1994, West Virginia remained staunchly in the Democratic column. Statewide, the Republicans did not win a U.S. Senate election between 1956, when Chapman Revercomb was defeated by Robert Byrd, and 2014.

Democrats dominated House elections for many years, but in 2000, Republican Shelley Moore Capito was elected in the Second District to her first term in Congress. Capito, the daughter of former Governor Arch Moore, was reelected six times until her 2014 election to the U.S. Senate.

In 2010, Republican David McKinley, a Wheeling businessman, beat Democrat Mike Oliverio in the First Congressional District. Oliverio had defeated incumbent Alan Mollohan in the primary. Mollohan had held the seat since 1983, and his father, Robert Mollohan, held the seat from 1953 to 1957 and from 1969 to 1983. McKinley was reelected in 2012 and 2014. In 2014, Republican Evan Jenkins defeated incumbent Rahall to represent the Third Congressional District, while in the Second District, Republican Alex Mooney defeated Democrat Nick Casey for the open seat being vacated by Capito.

The 2014 election appeared to mark the completion of another historic realignment in West Virginia congressional representation. Domination of the state’s delegation by the Democratic Party, nearly complete since the 1930s, had quickly eroded after the turn of the 21st century. Republicans were left with all three seats in the House of Representatives and one of the two U.S. senators. The reasons included the unpopularity of President Barack Obama within the state and possibly 2014’s historically low voter turnout, with nearly two-thirds of eligible voters failing to show up at the polls.

This Article was written by Kenneth C. Martis

Last Revised on January 07, 2015


Sources

Biographical Directory of the American Congress, 1774-1989. Washington: United States Government Printing Office, 1989.

Martis, Kenneth C. The Historical Atlas of Political Parties in the U.S. Congress: 1789-1989. New York: Macmillan, 1989.

Martis, Kenneth C. & Gregory Elmes. The Historical Atlas of State Power in Congress: 1790-1990. Washington: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1993.

Cite This Article

Martis, Kenneth C. "Congressional Representation." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 07 January 2015. Web. 14 December 2017.

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