W.Va. GOP Still Playing Catch-Up

West Virginia is becoming less and less a Democrat Party stronghold, to judge by voter registration numbers. You couldn’t prove it by filings for this year’s elections, though.

For decades, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a two-to-one margin in the Mountain State. By last fall, however, the margin had been shaved significantly. A bare majority of registered voters, not quite 53 percent, declared themselves to be Democrats. Meanwhile, Republicans had inched up to nearly 29 percent.

A big difference is in the number of people who either are fed up with both parties or want the flexibility to vote either way in primary elections. At one time, the number of independents (“no party affiliation”) was negligible. Now about 16.5 percent of West Virginia voters are registered in that column.

Clearly, the number of die-hard Democrats is declining.

That, combined with the fact President Barack Obama will head the Democrat ticket on the ballot next fall, is a golden opportunity for Mountain State GOP leaders.

Apparently there aren’t many of them.

It’s true Republicans found candidates – some of them strong – to run for all the executive branch posts. They may actually pull off a few upsets. For example, J. Michael Teets is the Republican candidate for commissioner of agriculture. Teets is seeking to replace the retiring commissioner, Gus Douglass. In 2008, Teets did quite well against Douglass, given the fact the incumbent was among the long-serving, best-known politicians in the state.

But the Legislature is where the rubber meets the road. There, Democrats have nothing to fear.

Seventeen of the Senate’s 34 seats will be on the ballot in November. Republicans could find candidates for only 11 of those posts.

In some areas, that’s entirely understandable. For example, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has no opposition in the primary. No Republican with any sense of self-preservation wants to take him on. And, it needs to be noted, Kessler is trying hard to be fair to Republicans – something that couldn’t always be said of leading Democrats.

Some progress is being made in recruiting GOP candidates for the House of Delegates. During the 2008 election, Republicans were able to field candidates in just 39 of the 58 delegate districts (about 67 percent). This year there are Republican candidates in 54 of the 67 districts (about 80 percent).

Again, there are good reasons why up-and-coming Republicans don’t want to run in some districts that are overwhelmingly Democrat. In Wetzel County’s Fifth Delegate District, for example, no GOP candidate is foolish enough to take on incumbent Delegate Dave Pethtel, a Democrat. The same is true in several southern counties.

Part of what’s going on is worry about taking on incumbents – of either party. In the state Senate, for example, Republicans are unopposed in two districts (incumbent Sen. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, has no opponents; incumbent Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is opposed only in the primary).

In general, then, Republicans are aware of strengths they haven’t enjoyed for some time, and are capitalizing on them by fielding candidates. But they have a long, long way to go before hoping to convert West Virginia into a true two-party state.

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Money makes the world go around in politics, especially in West Virginia. One candidate for the state Supreme Court, Letitia “Tish” Chafin, seems to have decided she wants her world to go around very speedily.

Chafin, who’s married to state Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, has loaned her campaign $1 million.

That’s an enormous amount of money. It signals Chafin understands she has a tough fight ahead of her to win one of the two Democrat nominations for the court.

Look for incumbent Justice Robin Davis and circuit court Judge Jim Rowe to be tough to beat, however.

Myer can be reached at myer@theintelligencer.net.