West Virginia’s blurred party lines

26 Mar 2018

Democrats vs. Republicans, left vs. right, blue vs. red (and yes, that’s the other way around to the UK), liberal vs. conservative. In today’s partisan American politics, it’s usually not that hard to tell one party’s candidate from the other. But if you’re looking for an antidote to this monotony, the current US Senate race in West Virginia might be the place to look.


The US 2018 midterm elections take place on November 6, with the Republican Party’s West Virginia primary completing ahead of that in May.


The sitting US Senator defending his seat in this election is Joe Manchin III (below), a Democrat, and an interesting one at that: how many Democratic Senators would describe themselves as follows: “I was an easy (tax bill vote) pickup (for Trump). Very easy pickup”? Moreover, Manchin reports that President Trump “repeatedly” sought to entice Manchin to cross the floor and become a Republican, to which Manchin replied “I said, ‘You need more Democrats like me, you don’t need Republicans”, that is: more Democrats willing to be open to the President’s ideas and proposals. Indeed, in the Senate, Manchin is recorded as voting in line with the President’s policy positions over 60% of the time, the second highest of any Democratic Senator and in stark contrast with his party colleagues Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren, for whom this is the case less than 9% of the time.



Other former-Democrats have switched parties in West Virginia, including when West Virginia (state) Senator Daniel Hall switched party allegiance in 2014 and thereby secured for the Republicans control of West Virginia’s Senate for the first time since 1930. Another former Democrat member of that Senate is US Congressman Evan Jenkins (below) – who is now a Republican, and who won his race by unseating Nick Rahall, a Democrat, in 2014. During that campaign, Rahall openly wondered whether Jenkins’ switch to the Republicans was a permanent one: “I don’t even know what party he’ll belong to next year.” He stuck with the Republicans, and is now vying to become the party’s official candidate for US Senate this year, running against Manchin who cordially refers to Jenkins as a “good guy” and notes that Jenkins once even hosted a fundraiser for him in his house.


Even more confusingly, West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice has switched parties on multiple occasions.  A Republican, Justice has declared his backing for Manchin in the 2018 US Senate midterm election, a political choice perhaps easier to understand when one considers that he won his own race (in 2016) as a fellow Democrat.  Here’s how he has pivoted between America’s two major parties: he switched from the Republicans to the Democrats in 2015, was elected Governor, and then switched back again to the Republicans in 2017.



In truth, this US Senate race - a key 2017 midterm battleground - has pretty much everything. Aside from the above, sustained bout of party-switching, it’s ranked by Real Clear Politics as a “toss up” between the Democrats and Republicans in terms of the eventual winner. It’s also a “statistical tie” (meaning that it falls within opinion polls’ margin of error) between the three Republican candidates seeking their party’s official candidacy: Jenkins; West Virginia’s Attorney General, Patrick Morrisey; and former coal mining (Massey Energy Company) baron Donald Blankenship - a loud and proud Trump supporter, with whom he shares both a first name and a passion for that industry. 


There are definite limits to the blurring of party lines in this crunch US midterm race. Whereas Governor Justice also has a professional background in coal mining, one important way in which he differs from Blankenship is that the latter is a steadfast Republican and one who is credited with supporting – not least financially - the party during many of the years when it was far from competitive in West Virginian politics.


Likewise, the consistently Republican Attorney General Morrisey is thereby able to attack Jenkins’s past, confident that the same term of party-switching “hypocrite” cannot be turned on their own candidate: “as a former lobbyist, a former Democrat, and a former Hillary Clinton supporter, Evan Jenkins can now add hypocrite to that list. Jenkins is clearly trying to distract voters from his liberal record of supporting cap-and-trade, gun control, Obamacare, radical abortion policies, and his lengthy service on the Obama team. In contrast, Morrisey has a proven conservative record…”



Finally, there is absolutely no blurring of lines in relation to the personal contest between Manchin and Blankenship for this US Senate seat: in 2010, after 29 miners died in Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, Manchin was unequivocal in his condemnation: “I believe this permeated from the top down – from Don Blankenship down … I believe that Don has blood on his hands”. For many, Blankenship’s Senate race in 2018 is being seen as an attempt to clear his name regarding that tragedy, as well as an attempt to “get back at” Manchin for his accusation of personal culpability.  Blankenship was convicted of the misdemeanour charge of conspiring to wilfully violate mine safety and health standards and served one year in a federal US jail, a jail term that he subsequently reflected upon in clearly partisan terms: “I think on the explosion and the prosecution, if you will, it's probably a badge of honor … in West Virginia at least to have been jailed by Obama and Loretta Lynch", Lynch being the US Attorney General that (Democratic) President Obama appointed in 2015. Even for the US, this takes political party partisanship to a new level.


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