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Jay Rockefeller’s in Big Trouble in West Virginia—and So Are the Dems

After a brutal Election Day, Republicans led off the 2014 recruiting cycle with some good news: Popular West Virginia Rep. Shelley Moore Capito announced that she would challenge long-time Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller for his seat. Although Rockefeller has never won reelection by less than 27 percentage points and Democrats continue to dominate at the state-level in West Virginia, Republicans have plenty of cause to be optimistic about their chances in the Mountain State. 

When Jay Rockefeller first won his Senate seat in 1984, West Virginia was one of the most Democratic states in the country. Democrats had performed better in West Virginia than the country as a whole in just about every election since 1932, when the New Deal and the United Mine Workers brought impoverished and heavily unionized West Virginia into the Democratic-fold. Democratic presidential candidates won West Virginia in four of the six presidential elections between 1968 and 1988, with Republicans only prevailing in Nixon and Reagan’s 49-state landslides. 

The national Democratic Party’s embrace of gun control and environmental regulations brought an abrupt end to West Virginia’s Democratic-lean in presidential elections, but local and state Democrats distanced themselves from the national party on cultural and environmental issues and continued to succeed in statewide elections. Indeed, Rockefeller won reelection by 27 points in 2008, even though McCain won the state by 13 points—a 40-point gap. But after four years of the Obama administration, it is unclear whether Rockefeller can pull it off again. The fight over Cap and Trade and the so-called “War on Coal” were devastating blows to Obama’s standing in coal country, turning an area that was as blue as New York into one as crimson as Alabama. (For example, Romney gained a staggering 42 points over McCain’s performance in Boone County and won by 31 points, even though Boone had voted for Democrats in all but one presidential election since Coolidge.) 

If Obama was the only Democratic candidate suffering in coal country, perhaps Rockefeller could comfortably win reelection. But the recent performances of Democratic Senate candidates in neighboring counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and Virginia cast serious doubt on the extent that coal-country voters continue to distinguish between national and state Democratic candidates.

Buchanan County, Virginia borders West Virginia and has a similar political tradition. Before the Obama administration, Democrat Tim Kaine, then running for governor, won Buchanan County by 5 points and Republican George Allen, running for Senate, lost Buchanan County by 12 points. Earlier this month, those same candidates, facing off for Allen's old Senate seat, produced a dramatically different result. Kaine lost Buchanan County to Allen by 29 points—just 5 points better than Obama’s 34 point defeat.

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In Pennsylvania, Senator Bob Casey, a pro-life, conservative Democrat, lost traditionally Democratic counties bordering West Virginia that John Kerry managed to win eight years ago. Casey lost Greene County by 3 points in 2012, even though he carried it by 27 points in 2006.

Across West Virginia’s northwestern border, Senator Sherrod Brown—an anti-Cap and Trade Democrat who won almost all of southeastern Ohio in 2006—performed worse than John Kerry across much of Ohio’s coal country. While Brown outperformed Kerry in 2006 by 25 points in Monroe County, a traditionally Democratic coal county bordering West Virginia, Brown actually finished 8 points worse in 2012 than Kerry did in 2004.

In fact, the only Democratic Senate candidate to outperform Kerry in coal country since 2008 is Joe Manchin, who managed to win West Virginia by 10 points in 2010 and 24 points in 2012. While Manchin’s recent victories indicate a path forward for Rockefeller, Manchin’s example isn’t exactly heartening to liberals. Before running for the Senate, Manchin was an overwhelmingly popular governor with approval ratings near 70 percent. Despite high approval ratings, Manchin found himself trailing by as much as five points by the early part of October as Republicans attempted to link him to the national Democratic Party. It took an advertisement in which he shot a copy of the Cap and Trade bill with a rifle for him to win just 53 percent of the vote, even though voters liked him personally and strongly approved of his performance as governor.

To win in West Virginia, Democrats need to be able to run such advertisements. Rockefeller can't, so he is in trouble. While Manchin could credibly run as a defender of West Virginia’s coal industry, Rockefeller voted for the McCain-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill in 2003; argued that coal supporters should stop “pretending climate change doesn’t exist”; didn't take a vigorous stance against the cap-and-trade push in 2009 and 2010; and was the only member of West Virginia's congressional delegation to oppose legislation blocking an Obama administration rule targeting mercury emissions from coal-fired plants. A November 2011 PPP poll found Rockefeller’s approval rating at just 47 percent, with Capito leading Rockefeller by 4 points in a hypothetical Senate contest—far beneath Manchin’s 61 percent approval rating and 11 point lead in the same poll.

Rockefeller's best shot might be a Tea Party-type conservative winning the Republican nomination, since Capito is pro-choice and quite vulnerable to a primary challenger. Certainly, the last few years suggest that it would be unwise to assume that the GOP can't find someone capable of costing them a winnable Senate seat. But even if a Tea Party-type conservative wins the Republican Party nomination, Rockefeller might still be an underdog. Conservative Republican candidates like Rand Paul have performed well since 2008 in neighboring areas of coal country, and Manchin's narrow victory despite high approval ratings, strong personal popularity, and far better positioning on coal makes it difficult to argue that any Democrat without irreproachable credentials on coal and cultural issues should be considered a favorite in West Virginia, even against a relatively weak challenger--let alone Capito.