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W.Va. Coalfields Shift Politically

The Democratic Party’s Solid South lasted much longer in West Virginia than in the nation as a whole. For generations, Democrats could count on winning in the southern coalfield counties. Voter registration numbers made their dominance obvious.

A political operative remarked to me recently that the southern coalfields are turning Republican. Only a little bit, as it turns out — but they are turning much less Democratic. I’ll explain that in a moment.

The shift will have ramifications for candidates seeking statewide office, but only to an extent. One has to remember that smart West Virginia Democrats are far less liberal than their counterparts on the national scene.

Eight years of President Barack Obama, who vowed to make it so expensive to open a coal-fired power plant than no one would want to, got the ball rolling away from the Democratic Party. Then, Hillary Clinton’s vow to put a lot of coal miners out of work sealed the deal. Southern coalfields voters helped West Virginia give President Donald Trump his biggest majority in the nation. He vowed to rescue the coal industry.

Well, he’s trying, but in some ways, the industry is too far gone to rescue. My guess is that it wasn’t so much his promises as Clinton’s that turned so many coalfields voters against the Democratic Party in 2016.

Look at voter registration numbers for evidence of the shift in the coalfields counties — Boone, Fayette, Kanawha (primarily the eastern half), Logan, McDowell, Mingo Raleigh and Wyoming.

In November 2016, the counties had a total of 171,647 registered Democrats, or 53.29% of the total. Now, the number is just 142,218, or 47.80% — a minority for the first time in many, many years. That’s an earth-shattering change in just three years.

But Republicans haven’t gained that much. November 2016 registration for them was 79,562, compared to just 80,998 now.

It’s the third-party or independent voters who have gained. They’re up from 22% of the total in 2016 to nearly 25% now.

Many of the Democrats have just gone away, apparently. In November 2016, the eight coalfields counties had a total of 322,048 registered voters. They’re down to 297,482 now.

Clearly, the statewide cleanup of voter registration rolls led by Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner had a lot to do with that. During the past three years, that effort has reduced the statewide registered voter total by 53,758.

What does it tell you that the eight coalfields counties represented 24,566 of that total?

One of the most interesting things about the shift is Kanawha County. During the past three years, it lost nearly 14,000 registered Democrats — and gained more than 3,000 Republicans.

Again, this doesn’t spell gloom and doom for Democrats running in the southern coalfields, though it does make their task more difficult. For one thing, they have to explain to thousands of laid-off coal miners and their families why they’ve stuck with the party many blame for devastating large sections of the state. And, of course, there’s the distinct possibility that when, next November, many coalfields voters choose Donald Trump again, they’ll just stick with that side of the ballot as they go down it.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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