Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

The long road ahead for West Virginia Democrats

New West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Mike Pushkin has his work cut out for him, and he knows it.

“It’s about work ethic and we’re going to have people who want to show up and work and get that message out that we are the real party of West Virginia values,” Pushkin said on Talkline last week.

His enthusiasm is commendable, and necessary. The state’s Democratic Party has been on a precipitous slide for years, losing seat after seat in the Legislature and positions on the state Board of Public Works.

For decades, Democrats could depend on a massive advantage in voter registration to maintain majorities, but that has steadily disappeared like a summer sunset behind the West Virginia hills.

The most recent voter registration figures from the Secretary of State’s Office show there are now 59,015 more Republicans than Democrats — 442,476 to 383,461. That’s a 39% to 34% advantage. Twenty-three percent (262,464) are independent or have no party affiliation.

Thirty-four of West Virginia’s 55 counties now have Republican majorities. Just five years ago, Democrats held majorities in 41 counties. And in 2017, there were 149,000 more Democrats than Republicans.

There has been a national swing toward the GOP as well.

An Associated Press analysis of voter registration found that “more than one million voters across 43 states have switched to the Republican Party over the last year. The previously unreported number reflects a phenomenon that is playing out in virtually every region of the country.”

The AP reports the shift coincides with events during the Biden presidency and the leftward tilt of the Democratic Party.

One voter interviewed by the AP, Ben Smith from Colorado, said his party switch was “more a rejection of the left than embracing the right.” Another voter, Jessica Kroells, also from Colorado, told the AP that the Democratic Party had “left me behind.”

We have heard that sentiment in West Virginia for years now, particularly as the national Democratic Party became more liberal on environmental and social issues. Large numbers of moderate to conservative Democrats have switched to the Republican Party, become independent, or simply died off.

Chairman Pushkin maintains it is the Democratic Party that represents the real values of West Virginians, but he admits the party “hasn’t done a great job getting the message out.” He said the party has recruited people who will do that.

Well, a long journey begins with first steps. The party needs strong top-of-the-ticket candidates to energize voters or an improved local candidate recruitment and campaign effort — or both — to stanch the bleeding.

That is not impossible. West Virginia Republicans did it over a two-decade period, overcoming a serious numerical disadvantage. However, at this moment, despite Pushkin’s enthusiasm, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the Mountain State switches back from red to blue any time soon.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.