GOP hopes to end Dems' hold on W.Va.

The party's recent policies, including those on the environment, seem to be helping turn blue state red

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CLARKSBURG, W.Va. -- On the wall of the Bluebird restaurant and convenience store here is a T-shirt that says, "West Virginia is more than just coal. We also have pepperoni rolls."

With last week's proposal from President Barack Obama's administration to drastically cut power plant emissions, some fear that the coal industry may have the shorter shelf life. The Democratic Party's long hold on the Mountain State is on the bubble, too.

"I don't think West Virginia is leaving the Democratic Party as much as the Democratic Party is leaving West Virginia under this president," said U.S. Rep. David McKinley, a Republican who represents northern West Virginia -- including Clarksburg, Wheeling and Morgantown -- and believes his own takeover of a longtime Democratic seat in 2010 reflected the shifting landscape.

West Virginia long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with a Democratic Party that supported coal miners and unions. But more recent Democratic policies, from social liberalism to environmentalism, have fanned the winds of change in West Virginia and across Appalachian coal country.

Republicans now hold 52 of the 62 U.S. House seats in Appalachia, a region comprising West Virginia and parts of Pennsylvania and 11 other states. Democrats have lost at least a dozen of those seats over the past two election cycles, and they well could cede new ground this year, including some in West Virginia, said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan publication of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

"I think it really accelerated after Obama got in office," Mr. Kondik said.

In West Virginia, three House races and a Senate race this year could provide additional evidence of a longtime blue state turning red -- and the Senate contest also could help the GOP complete a takeover of Congress.

In an article last month in Politico, Mr. Kondik described U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, a 19-term incumbent who represents the 3rd District in southern West Virginia, as "probably the most endangered Democratic incumbent in the country." The only Democratic House member left in the state, he faces Republican Evan Jenkins, a state senator who switched parties last year.

In the 1st District, Mr. McKinley faces Democrat Glen Gainer, the West Virginia state auditor, who said partisan posturing over coal and clean air is part of the "dysfunction" in Washington, D.C., that he's running to overcome.

The clean-air proposal is "just a misguided policy that we all have to get behind and change," he said.

Squaring off in the 2nd District, which cuts across the middle of the state, are Nick Casey, former chairman of the state Democratic Party, and Republican Alex Mooney, a Maryland transplant. The seat is one the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hopes to win through its "Red to Blue" initiative.

The 2nd District slot is open because Republican U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito is running for the Senate seat to be given up by the retiring Jay Rockefeller, a Democrat. West Virginia hasn't elected a Republican senator since the 1950s, so for the GOP, which already controls the House and needs to pick up six seats to take the Senate, electing Ms. Capito would be a boon in more ways than one.

Ms. Capito, the daughter of former Gov. Arch Moore, couldn't be reached. She faces Democrat Natalie Tennant, the West Virginia secretary of state, who last week was on a tour to promote her energy policy that includes the continued use of coal.

"For us in West Virginia, it starts with the resources God has blessed us with," she said on a call from the road. "I refuse to accept that we have to choose between clear air and good-paying jobs."

'Obama is just wrong on this'

When the Environmental Protection Agency issued its clean-air plan last week, Ms. Capito, Mr. McKinley and other Republicans immediately vowed to fight it. Meanwhile, Democratic candidates were placed in the awkward position of criticizing it and the president, the titular head of the party.

"President Obama is just wrong on this issue," Mr. Gainer said.

Ms. Tennant said she felt no discomfort because "I don't answer to the president. I answer to the people of West Virginia."

Some West Virginians viewed the proposal as an attack on their very way of life -- and overkill at that.

"Do you see any pollution here?" asked a smiling Johnny Joe Madia, a Democratic activist and Bluebird patron, on a partly sunny day in Clarksburg, the Harrison County seat.

Monongalia County Commission President Bill Bartolo, a Democrat, complained that the EPA proposed eliminating a revenue source while offering no game plan for making up the difference.

"We will be having people breathe clean air in welfare lines. That is the irony of this whole issue," he said, adding that higher unemployment will bring crime and other social problems.

Even before the clean-air plan came out, West Virginia's House and Senate races favored the Republican candidates, Mr. Kondik said, citing a festering ideological gap between voters and a Democratic Party increasingly associated with urban areas, minorities and socially liberal causes.

"Appalachia is not densely populated. It's very white. It's not socially liberal," Mr. Kondik said, asserting that Mr. Obama's race factors into his own unpopularity in the region.

Mr. Kondik said the Democrats' loss of Pennsylvania's 12th District House seat was part of the shift.

In that district, stretching from Beaver to Cambria counties, incumbent Mark Critz lost to Republican Keith Rothfus in 2012. Mr. Critz had won the seat in 2010 after the death of his boss, Democratic titan John Murtha, who was in office for about 35 years.

Redistricting also is believed to have helped Mr. Rothfus.

Gregory Noone, associate professor of political science and law and director of the national security and intelligence program at Fairmont State University, is more sanguine than Mr. Kondik about the chances of some of West Virginia's Democratic candidates.

"I wouldn't bet against Nick Rahall," and Mr. Mooney's recent move to the state could affect his chances against Mr. Casey, Mr. Noone said. He predicted that the Senate race "will be closer than most people think."

But he said Republicans have gained currency as the Democrats' historical advocacy for miners became less relevant.

"As that gets farther and farther in the rearview mirror, people are identifying more with what the Republican Party has to say" -- and that message resonates in a region with a conservative stand on religion, guns and homosexuality, though strong feelings about the last issue are fading with each generation, Mr. Noone said.

Democrats: 'tree huggers'

Chris DellaMea, a Beckley, W.Va., resident who has photographed hundreds of Appalachian coal patches for historical purposes, said some voters have come to view the Democratic Party as representing "the Sierra Club, tree huggers and the [American Civil Liberties Union]. They don't want to be associated with that."

Perhaps, he said, older West Virginians have kept the Democratic Party in control until now.

With Mr. Rockefeller in office since 1985 and Democrat Robert C. Byrd a senator from 1959 until his death in 2010, West Virginia remained reliably Democratic through the Bill Clinton years.

According to Sabato's Crystal Ball, Jimmy Carter won 68 percent of Appalachia in 1976, and Mr. Clinton took 47 percent in 1996. However, Mr. Obama took 13 percent in 2008 and 7 percent in 2012, when he lost every county in West Virginia.

Democratic candidates may take some comfort in knowing that, without the noise of a presidential race this year, they will be better able to localize races and show how they stand out from opponents. Mr. Gainer said he's trying to convince voters that he's better poised than Mr. McKinley to understand their struggles and needs.

While the national party may have "gotten away from our Democratic Party at the local level," the latter remains highly connected to West Virginia voters, Mr. Bartolo, who faces his own re-election bid this year, said. He said his team has demonstrated the kind of fiscal conservatism taxpayers like.

While Mr. Kondik said Mr. Obama's election has quickened the change in political sentiment across Appalachia, Eric Leaseburg, owner of the Bluebird, said West Virginians long have been ideologically torn. One school of thought, he said, is that West Virginians interested in public office should register as Democrats and run on a Republican platform.

"There are a lot of contradictions," said Mr. DellaMea, the coal patch photographer, noting Appalachia still relies heavily on the public welfare programs long supported by Democrats.

Joe Smydo: or 412-263-1548.

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