Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

The political left’s uphill battle in West Virginia

Joe Manchin’s decision not to run for re-election to the United States Senate has cleared the way for other Democrats to get in the race. One of the entries is Zach Shrewsbury, a Marine Corps veteran who leans to the far left of the political spectrum.

When I asked him on Talkline last Monday if he is a socialist, he said, “Sure, that’s perfectly fine with me.” Frankly, I appreciate Shrewsbury’s candor. At least you know where he stands. Many of his positions align with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who describes himself as a democratic socialist.

Sanders energized the left wing of the Democratic Party in West Virginia and across the country in 2016. He captured the West Virginia Democratic Presidential Primary with 51% of the vote, compared with just 36% for Hillary Clinton.

However, six of the eight Democratic Super Delegates to the national convention cast their lot with Clinton instead of Sanders, and that angered those liberal Democrats who felt the state party was beholden to the status quo.

However, the left has not been able to recreate the Sanders-level enthusiasm for state candidates. Here are a few examples:

  • In the 2020 U.S. Senate race, liberal Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin received only 27% of the vote, while Republican Shelley Moore Capito claimed 70%.
  • The 2020 2nd District Congressional race saw liberal Democrat Cathy Kunkel get 37%, compared with Republican incumbent Alex Mooney’s 63%.
  • In the race for that 2nd District seat in 2022, liberal Democrat Barry Wendell received 34%, while Mooney collected 63%.
  • Liberal Democrat Steven Smith ran an aggressive grassroots campaign for governor with significant small dollar contributions in 2020. He came close to Ben Salango, who won the nomination with 39% of the vote. Smith finished second at 34% in a five-way race.

So, why can’t liberal Democrats win … or even get close?  

The biggest reason is that there are not enough voters who identify with the positions of the far left. Pew Research from this year found that just 16% of West Virginia adults say they are liberal, while 47% say they are conservative and 30% say they are moderate.

Candidates who self-identify as liberal, or even socialist in the case of Shrewsbury, often start out with a passionate group of supporters who are committed to the positions of the left. However, the history of recent elections demonstrates it is hard for these candidates to expand their base. They end up stuck in the 30% range.

That leaves the field open for another, more moderate Democrat, to get in the race. One of the names being floated is Wheeling Mayor Glenn Elliott. His second term ends in June 2024, and he is prohibited from running for another term.

Elliott told me people have encouraged him to run. He has made no final decision, but said he is giving it “full consideration.”

Maybe others are thinking about getting in the race as well, although any candidate serious about running knows it will be an uphill battle.

Back to Shrewsbury. An introductory piece on his campaign website reads, “West Virginians always deserved better than they got in Joe Manchin.” Clearly there is a far-left wing of the Democratic Party in West Virginia that believes that and has never been happy with Manchin’s more moderate positions.

But those same voters must acknowledge that Manchin was able to do something that no far-left candidate has been able to do in the state in recent elections — win a race.

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