Although the birth of West Virginia is associated with the party of Lincoln, the state has 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. To understand the uneven record of the GOP in the Mountain State one must understand how sectional differences during the 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 and sympathizers. 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. Sen. 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 the party 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 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, won election three times as governor (1968, 1972, 1984), but ended his long career convicted of jury tampering. The other Republican leader, Cecil Underwood, had the distinction of being both the state’s youngest governor (1956) and oldest governor (1996).
Underwood’s victory over a divided Democratic Party in 1996 signaled a possible renewal of Republican fortunes. 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 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, and Mitt Romney, the GOP candidate for president, won every county in the state.
If their comeback to majority status occurs, it will not be due to proscriptive law as in the 1860s or to a dramatic national realignment as in 1896, but rather due to a gradual realignment within the state based on cultural issues.
Written by Robert Rupp