Except for the decade after statehood and the generation after 1896, the Democratic Party has dominated the political history of West Virginia. 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 have served as governor since 1930. This record of party supremacy is 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 in 1872 after voting restrictions against former Confederates were removed 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 Brisban 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 the present. 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 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.
In recent years the Democratic Party in the state, according to scholar John Fenton, has 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 suggest 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 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.
Despite setbacks in the 1996 gubernatorial contest and the presidential elections from 2000 through 2012, West Virginia Democrats nonetheless dominate state politics, holding the edge in registration and retaining control of the legislature and most of the statewide executive offices. Whether the coalition of often varied interests will continue united remains the question for coming decades.
This Article was written by Robert Rupp
Last Revised on November 08, 2012
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.