While political control of West Virginia shifted largely to the Republicans after 2012, Democrats have dominated for most of the history of the state.
At the end of the 20th century West Virginia ranked as one of the most Democratic states in the nation as measured by voter registration (2-1), control of the legislature (majorities in both houses since 1930), and elected statewide positions. Only two Republicans had served as governor since 1930. This record of party supremacy was ironic, since West Virginia traces its statehood to the support of the national Republican Party and the strength of the party’s Union effort.
The Democratic Party in newborn West Virginia started as a coalition of pro-Union Democrats, pro-Confederate Democrats, and former Whigs. It gained political supremacy from the Republican state founders in 1872, after the Flick Amendment removed voting restrictions against former Confederates from the state constitution.
During the subsequent period of party dominance (1872–96) the state elected a series of mostly conservative Democratic governors who, as historian Richard Brisbin points out, ‘‘were small-government in their philosophies, pro-Confederate in their sentiments, pro-business in their initiatives.’’ With the exception of Emanuel Willis ‘‘Windy’’ Wilson, who advocated an activist agenda, these governors resembled their conservative counterparts in other states.
The Democratic Party slipped into minority status with the election of 1896. That year West Virginia followed the tide as Republicans gained majority status in every section of the nation except the South. In the next generation, West Virginia Democrats elected only one governor (John Cornwell 1917–21) and controlled the House of Delegates only three times. The standing of the party was so poor that in 1924 Democratic presidential candidate John W. Davis, a West Virginia native, did not carry his home state.
The Great Depression and the New Deal activism of President Franklin Roosevelt ushered in a new era of Democratic dominance in West Virginia, beginning in 1932 and continuing to 2014. Economic hardship favored the Democrats’ call for an activist government. Democrats also benefited by the decline of their Republican opposition and their party’s continued regional strength in the southern counties. In Logan County, Democrats enjoyed an advantage in voter registration of 16-1 in 1996.
The decentralized nature of the state’s politics and the disorganization of the political opposition enabled the Democratic Party in West Virginia to weather several internal crises. In the late 1930s Democrats faced an ideological split when Governor Homer Holt’s conservative policies alienated labor unions. In a turning point in the party’s history, M. M. Neely resigned his U.S. Senate seat and with the support of the unions successfully ran for governor. His victory validated labor’s role in the party, but increasingly the Democratic machine he controlled until his death in 1958 appeared to be motivated more by patronage than ideology.
In the 1950s the party survived the controversy surrounding Governor Marland’s attempt to initiate a major tax revision on the coal industry. And in the 1960s it overcame the corruption scandal of Governor Barron’s administration.
By the middle years of the 20th century the West Virginia Democratic Party, according to scholar John Fenton, reflected a three-way division, with one faction headed by labor, another controlled by rural conservatives, and a third, statehouse, faction. This encouraged candidates to court support from a particular faction while reflecting a common political profile which characterized most rank-and-file Democrats—socially conservative in values, economically liberal in attitude, and pro-business in action. The result was to encourage moderate candidates and positions.
The successful candidacies of party outsiders Jay Rockefeller and Gaston Caperton in the last third of the 20th century suggested the declining influence of traditional party factions. Both men promoted a more progressive image of the party and recruited across faction lines. The nomination of leftist Charlotte Pritt for governor in 1996 further demonstrated the increasing fluidity of the party as it faced a growing Republican challenge at the end of the century. Opponents within the party balked at the Pritt nomination, organizing “Democrats for Underwood” and helping to elect Republican Cecil Underwood as governor. In 2000 Underwood lost to former Congressman Bob Wise after a single term, and Democrats have continued in the governor’s office since that time.
Democrat domination of the congressional delegation began to unravel when Wise left Congress to run for governor and was replaced as Second District Representative by Republican Shelley Moore Capito. Republican David McKinley of Wheeling defeated Mike Oliverio in the First District in 2010, after Oliverio had upset longtime Congressman Alan Mollohan in the primary election. Evan Jenkins of Huntington defeated Democrat Nick Rahall in the Third District in 2014, the same year that Capito was elected to replace retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller in the U.S. Senate.
In 2014, Democrats lost control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time since the Great Depression. Republican control of the legislature was confirmed in the election of 2016. Patrick Morrisey had defeated liberal Democratic incumbent Darrell McGraw for attorney general in 2012, and in 2016 all other statewide offices except governor fell to the Republicans.
The declining Democratic fortunes were compounded by the death in 2010 of the last party giant, U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Democrat Governor Joe Manchin succeeded Byrd in the Senate, and today is the leading figure within the party.
This Article was written by Robert Rupp
Last Revised on November 22, 2016
Brisbin, Richard A. Jr., et al. West Virginia Politics and Government. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987.
Fenton, John F. Politics in the Border States. New Orleans: Hauser Press, 1957.
Peirce, Neil R. The Border South States: People, Politics, and Power in the Five States of the Border South. New York: W. W. Norton, 1975.
Cite This Article
Rupp, Robert "Democratic Party." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 22 November 2016. Web. 24 February 2017.