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Although the birth of West Virginia is associated with the party of Lincoln, the state witnessed only two periods of Republican Party dominance, one in the early years of statehood and the other at the end of the 19th century, before a recent revival of party fortunes.

To understand the uneven record of the GOP in the Mountain State one must understand how sectional differences during the Civil War extended into politics after the war. While Republicans dominated areas of Unionist sentiment in the north and west, they were weak in the southern and eastern counties, areas of Confederate and subsequently Democratic support.

The first period of Republican dominance (1863–71) was underpinned by a proscriptive law that denied voting rights to former Confederate soldiers. Old Confederates tended to be Democrats and when those voter restrictions were removed under the 1871 Flick Amendment to the state constitution, Democrats gained enough votes to take control of the young state. The Republican Party assumed minority status until the election of 1896. For a generation, the party that had founded West Virginia and elected the state’s first four governors was unable to elect a governor or to control the state legislature, as a coalition of former Confederates, Peace Democrats, and conservative Unionists retained a political majority.

The second period of Republican supremacy (1896–1930) was ushered in by William McKinley’s victory in the 1896 presidential contest. In West Virginia the GOP regained majority status as voters embraced the pro-business and moderate social policies championed by Republicans on the state and national levels. From 1896 until 1930, Republicans won every gubernatorial contest except one (1916) and controlled both houses of the legislature in all but three sessions. The dominant political leader, U.S. Senator Stephen B. Elkins, exercised firm control over the party organization until his death in 1911.

Republican hegemony came to an end with the Great Depression, an economic seismic event that realigned politics in West Virginia and the nation. After 1932 an energized Democratic state party supported by an active federal government and a strong labor union movement kept the Republicans in a minority status. Throughout the rest of the 20th century the party never controlled the legislature, and only two Republicans were elected governor. In presidential contests the state voted Republican only three times, on each occasion when a Republican incumbent won a national landslide (1956, 1972, and 1984).

During this period Mountain State Republicans suffered what political scientist V. O. Key has called the ‘‘atrophy of party organizations.’’ As late as the 1990s, Republicans often did not nominate a full slate of candidates for the statewide offices or provide serious competition in many counties. This lack of competition exposed a lack of organization, unity, and leadership. Only two major party figures emerged during the last half of the 20th century, and neither was able to rebuild party organization or increase Republican legislative strength. The charismatic Arch A. Moore, a former Republican congressman from the Northern Panhandle, won election three times as governor (1968, 1972, 1984), but ended his long career convicted of five felonies, including mail fraud, tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. The other Republican leader, Cecil Underwood, had the distinction of being both the state’s youngest governor (1956) and oldest governor (1996). Except for Moore’s and Underwood’s victories, Democrats won every gubernatorial election between 1932 and 2016. However, in 2017, Jim Justice, seven months into his first term, changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican and was reelected under the GOP banner in 2020.

Underwood’s victory over a divided Democratic Party in 1996 had signaled the renewal of Republican fortunes in West Virginia. A series of legislative gains coupled with George W. Bush’s presidential victories in West Virginia in 2000 and 2004 suggested that the Republicans could again become competitive statewide. Republican Betty Ireland was elected Secretary of State in 2004, and in 2008 John McCain, the Republican candidate for president, won the state. In 2012, Republican Patrick Morrisey defeated longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw. In 2014, Republicans gained control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in more than 80 years. Morrisey won reelection as attorney general, and the Republicans controlled all statewide offices with the exception of governor. In the last three presidential elections, the GOP candidate—Mitt Romney (2012) and Donald Trump (2016 and 2020)—won every county in the state. By the 2023 legislative session, Republicans controlled 88 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 31 of 34 seats in the state senate. Due to party switches, Republican control stood at 89-11 in the house and 34-31 in the senate as of April 2023.

Shelley Moore Capito, Arch Moore’s daughter, emerged as the dominant GOP leader during this period of party revival. First elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1996, Capito in 2000 captured the Second District Congressional seat as Democrat incumbent Bob Wise left Congress to run successfully for governor. In 2014 Capito won election to the U.S. Senate upon the retirement of longtime incumbent Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat, and was easily reelected in 2020.

The recent Republican comeback to majority status was not due to proscriptive law as in the 1860s, nor to a dramatic national realignment as in 1896 and 1932, but rather to a gradual realignment within the state based on economic and cultural issues.

This Article was written by Robert Rupp

Last Revised on April 17, 2023

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Cite This Article

Rupp, Robert "Republican Party." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 17 April 2023. Web. 22 July 2024.


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