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West Virginia was born in political controversy. Abraham Lincoln’s recognition of its statehood in 1863, under the unnatural conditions of the Civil War, prompted former Virginia Gov. Henry A. Wise to declare the new state the ‘‘bastard child of a political rape.’’ While few West Virginians accept Wise’s bitter judgment, probably most will agree that our political history has been especially partisan and sometimes unseemly.

A review of the state’s history also reveals that politics in West Virginia was also parochial. Many political movements that swept across the nation had little permanent impact here. For example, the state avoided the harsh Reconstruction policies that prompted states farther south to stay committed to the Democratic Party during the national realignment of 1896. While those states experienced troop occupation after the Civil War and delayed readmission to the Union, West Virginia did not. Moreover, our state ended Confederate disenfranchisement by 1871, and it never denied the vote to African-Americans.

West Virginia also largely avoided the impact of both Populism, the ‘‘bottom-up’’ political rebellion which swept the South and West in the 1890s, and Progressivism, the ‘‘top-down’’ political reform which swept the North and Midwest in the early part of the 20th century. Such movements bypassed the state in part because of the political influence of conservative leaders in both major parties, including Senators Johnson N. Camden and Henry Gassaway Davis in the Democratic Party and Davis’s son-in-law, Stephen B. Elkins, among the Republicans. The closest the state came to mirroring either political reform movement was in the gubernatorial administrations of Democrat E. Willis Wilson (1885–89) and Republican Henry D. Hatfield (1913–17). Wilson mounted a populist campaign in 1884 that challenged monopolies and railroads, while Hatfield initiated such progressive reforms as primary elections and utility regulation.

Our state not only had few successful reform movements, but also few charismatic or powerful political leaders who could overcome what historian John Alexander Williams calls an ‘‘enduring and complex sectionalism.’’ Only two politicians were able to dominate their time and set up a long-term control over state politics. The first was Elkins, who from 1895 to his death in 1911 operated West Virginia’s first political machine. The second was Democrat M. M. Neely, U.S. senator and governor, who in 1940 with the help of organized labor fashioned a political machine that impacted state politics for the next two decades.

Although West Virginia may have had two major parties since its creation, it rarely has had a competitive two-party system. Instead it has followed a pattern of cyclical competition, with infrequent shifts in power from one party to another. In such a situation the pivot of political power becomes the dominant party’s primary rather than the November general election.

A review of the first 14 decades of our history reveals four distinct and uneven periods of partisan dominance. The first period witnessed Republican control from 1863 to 1871 as that party elected the state’s first four governors. Republican electoral success, however, was based on restrictions that denied the vote to the many thousands who had served or supported the Confederate cause. When those restrictions were removed under the 1871 Flick Amendment to the state constitution, the stage was set for a Democratic takeover. During this second period, 1872–96, Democrats elected the next five governors and controlled the legislature. During the years of the so-called Bourbon Democrats (a label derived from the anti-reform French monarchy, kings who were said ‘‘never to have learned anything and never to have forgotten anything’’) the party reflected a conservative ideology, a rural orientation, and pro-Confederate sympathies.

Republicans regained control in the 1896 election and kept power until 1932, when the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal altered the political landscape of West Virginia and the nation. During the 1896–1932 Republican period the party elected six of the seven governors and had a majority in 11 of the 14 legislative sessions. The GOP takeover in West Virginia was part of a national realignment which saw the party effectively champion policies of economic growth to attain a majority status in every region except the South.

The fourth and longest period of party dominance started in 1933 and continued through the rest of the 20th century. With two exceptions (Cecil Underwood and Arch Moore) all the governors during this period were Democrats. In 1940, organized labor became a major player in state politics when the United Mine Workers contributed to Neely’s win in the gubernatorial primary. After that election unions remained important in state politics for many years.

Although Neely’s victory was interpreted at the time as an ideological victory for organized labor and liberalism, his political machine during the next two decades appeared less interested in promoting a political agenda than in collecting political spoils. That perception increased the deep-seated voter cynicism which has a long tradition in West Virginia. Voter trust was further eroded in the 1960s and then again in the 1980s when two former governors, Democrat Wally Barron and Moore, were sent to prison for corruption.

In the last quarter of the 20th century two reformers from outside the political mainstream became governors, Jay Rockefeller in 1976 and Gaston Caperton in 1988. Each won reelection and Rockefeller went on to the U.S. Senate. Although both Rockefeller and Caperton adopted a more professional, moderate, and media-driven style of politics, at the end of the century West Virginia politics continued to be viewed as pervasive, partisan, and personal. The 2000s have seen a significant escalation in media-driven politics and campaign spending.

The early 21st century may very well mark the beginning of a fifth period of party dominance. Democrats continued to maintain a large majority in the state legislature until the 2014 election, when both houses flipped to Republican. In subsequent elections, Republican legislators have gained a super majority, holding an 89-to-11 advantage in the House and 31-to-3 advantage in the Senate as of 2023. In 2020 Jim Justice became only the third Republican to be elected governor since 1932; he was elected to his first term in 2016 as a Democrat but changed his party affiliation to Republican shortly after assuming office. This statewide Republican swing coincides with recent electoral shifts in other predominately rural, socially conservative states during the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

Political observers still ponder the question of how politics can permeate a state but leave so few permanent marks of change or reform.

Written by Robert Rupp