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'Wild, wonderful' for GOP?

| Saturday, Aug. 10, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

BERKELEY SPRINGS, W.Va.

Technically the town of Bath, this Eastern Panhandle community is home to a colorful but struggling enclave of artists who bridge the liberal temperament of creative types with the more conservative practicality of businessmen.

One store owner summed up the confluence of those opposing worlds when he described West Virginians for a few Washington Beltway tourists.

“For the longest time, you were born, baptized and then registered as a Democrat,” he said, standing outside his coveted location across from the famous medicinal hot springs that have drawn dignitaries since the days of George Washington.

For 13 years, Mountain State Democrats have lost ground, mainly because national Democrats have not worried about support from Appalachian and Southern states since President Bill Clinton left office.

That is why a former Clinton supporter, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, switched parties recently to run against incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall in the 3rd Congressional District next year.

“Back then, Clinton ran nationally on a lot of Main Street issues, like charter schools, community policing and welfare-to-work, that reflected West Virginia values,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins is part of a lineup for next year's midterm elections that could turn most members of West Virginia's congressional delegation into Republicans. That includes flipping the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Jay Rockefeller over to GOP Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito.

For much of the past century, West Virginia generally was more Democrat than the nation as a whole in presidential elections, according to Kyle Kondik, a numbers-cruncher at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.

“It was a notable outlier for Democrats as recently as 1980, when it was one of just a few states to back Jimmy Carter's re-election bid, and 1988, when it was one of the handful of states to back Michael Dukakis,” he explained.

Bill Clinton did better in West Virginia than he did nationally in both 1992 and 1996.

Kondik said West Virginia, like much of Appalachia, trended hard to Republicans starting in 2000 — and the state has gone Republican in the last four presidential elections.

“It was one of Mitt Romney's best states in 2012 and one of the few states that have a split personality — Republican in its presidential leanings but Democratic in state government,” Kondik said.

Yet even that is starting to change, as Republicans have made gains in the state legislature.

“Democrats have increasingly been saying proudly, ‘We are not national Dems, we are West Virginia Democrats,'” said Jenkins. “Well, that was always code for ‘We are independent.'”

So, while a number of statewide high-profile Democrats conceivably could run for Rockefeller's Senate seat, no major contender has emerged.

“That probably is an indication of the Republican turn the state has taken, but it's also because Capito is seen as such a strong campaigner,” Jenkins said.

The Democrats' strongest contender in the state midterms next year is former state party chairman Nick Casey, who is running for Capito's seat. Even he is a “West Virginia Democrat,” however, and likely to side rarely with national Democrats on any issue.

Jenkins said the reaction from Democrat state Senate colleagues and from constituents has been as he thought it would be — respectful.

“I have yet to have a single phone call or run into a Senate colleague who told me that I did a wrong thing,” he said. “Not a big surprise: While some of my colleagues are ‘Obama' Democrats, there are a lot who are struggling on how to address his agenda to our state.”

One does not need to look further for evidence of that struggle than the announcement last Tuesday of major layoffs at several Boone County coal mines — all blamed on the Obama administration's “war on coal.”

Kondik believes West Virginia is the state to watch politically next year. Although it has just three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, two of those — the 2nd and 3rd districts' — are among the 35 most competitive House races in the nation, he said. And the state's U.S. Senate seat “is a must-have in the Republicans' quest to win the Senate majority,” he added.

His conclusion: “So far, so good, for them — but it's not necessarily over yet.”

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

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