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David Vs. Goliath In Charleston?

Last week, Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, announced his intentions to seek a second four-year term in the newly redrawn 10th Senatorial District consisting of Greenbrier, Nicholas, Summers, Monroe counties with most of Fayette County.

“Because politics is far too toxic…Because we need to unite…Because the good fight is worth fighting…I am running for a second term to represent my community,” Baldwin said on Twitter Nov. 30 after making a formal announcement earlier that day.

This normally wouldn’t warrant any special mention. Most incumbents usually do run for re-election. But it does in this case because at one point, Baldwin was on the fence.

Speaking to the West Virginia Daily News in August, Baldwin said he was not sure if he would run for re-election.

“It wears on you,” Baldwin said. “These are very difficult times. I think tensions have been very high…The issue now is just that I need to take time to check in about my call and see if this is where I still need to be and if this is what I am supposed to be doing.”

Baldwin is the pastor at Ronceverte Presbyterian Church. He started his public service as a member of the county Board of Education. I’ve interviewed Baldwin several times for the pages of this newspaper you’re reading. I’ve always found him to be friendly, available when needed for a comment and someone who isn’t prone to grandstanding.

Frankly, Baldwin’s selection as Senate Minority Leader nearly two years ago was surprising. He succeeded Marion County Democrat and former public school administrator Roman Prezioso, who was a lion and a firebrand. And the previous leader of the Senate Democrats, Jeff Kessler, who was Senate president then minority leader after the Republicans took the majority in 2015, was known for his oratory (and full disclosure: I worked for Kessler from 2013 to 2015).

You can’t blame Baldwin for taking his time to think about running again. Much like U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is the last statewide elected Democrat, Baldwin is the last Democrat in his region of the state. It was only a few years ago that the opposite was true.

In 2014, the 10th Senatorial District (which didn’t include Nicholas County) had Democrats William Laird and Ronald Miller. Half of the four House of Delegates districts within the 10th Senatorial District were represented by Democrats. The exceptions were two delegates in the 28th District (parts of Raleigh, Summers and Monroe counties) and the two delegates in the 42nd District (most of Greenbrier County and parts of Summers and Monroe counties).

So, in six years that area lost five Democratic lawmakers. With the new Senatorial redistricting map lumping Nicholas County in the 10th District could tip things in the direction of a Republican challenger to Baldwin. Registered Republican voters outnumber Democrats in Nicholas County. The same holds true in Greenbrier and Monroe counties. Fayette and Summers counties still have a majority of registered Democrats, but the voters in those counties don’t seem to be voting for Democrats.

Truth be told, the Democratic minority in the Senate stands a real chance of shrinking. Four incumbents are not coming back: former Ohio County Sen. Bill Ihlenfeld returned to his prior job as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia a few months ago; Michael Romano wants to seek his old Harrison County Commission seat; Monongalia County Sen. Bob Beach is finishing out his term and taking a break; and John Unger is a magistrate in Berkeley County.

Some of those seats will probably remain safely in Democratic hands. NAACP leader Owens Brown was appointed to Ihlenfeld’s seat. The 1st Senatorial District was once represented by two Democrats prior to 2015. But since 2017, the seat has been held by one Democrat and one Republican. The area may be socially conservative, but it’s still a union-supporting working-class district.

The Senate Democratic Caucus has 11 members. If a Democrat is going to hold on, it’s going to be in the 1st District. Beach’s 13th District also stands a good chance of returning a Democrat to Charleston in 2022. But 23 Republican Senate seats could easily grow to 26 seats. With the changed political landscape in Baldwin’s 10th District, could that be a Republican pickup?

That’s why it was somewhat silly for some Senate Republicans to push the Senatorial redistricting map they tried to push through. I’m told the goal was to make a map to get the Senate Republican majority to 30 seats. That would certainly cement its supermajority status. It would even give them the numbers to call themselves into a special session without the need for Democratic votes.

But with the map they approved that only tweaks the existing lines (except for the Senate districts in Kanawha County, which got split between three districts instead of two), Republicans stand a real chance of securing 27 seats, which also gives them the numbers they need.

I suspect Baldwin knows this and instead of going away quietly, he plans to rally.

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