The Magazine

Will West Virginia Go Republican?

Bush is surprisingly strong in coal country, and he may have coattails

Oct 23, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 06 • By MATTHEW REES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Elkins, West Virginia

DICK KIMBLER is about as loyal a Democrat as you'll find. A 63-year-old coal miner from Sharples, West Virginia, and president of Local 2935 of the United Mine Workers, he's never voted Republican in a presidential election -- not even when George McGovern was the Democratic nominee. But on October 2, when George W. Bush came to Huntington, West Virginia, for a rally on the banks of the Ohio River, Kimbler introduced the Texas governor to the energized crowd of 1,500. In his brief remarks, he said there was a simple reason why he'd decided to support Bush: "The Democratic administration shut my mine down." The 50 coal miners flanking Kimbler on the stage and the hundreds in the crowd bellowed in agreement.

Kimbler's defection illuminates one of the most surprising developments in this year's presidential campaign: Bush has an excellent chance to win West Virginia, a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than two to one. The most recent statewide poll, conducted for the Charleston Gazette, showed Bush leading Al Gore by two points. Bush's coattails might even be decisive in an open congressional seat, where the Republican, Shelley Moore Capito, is only narrowly trailing Democrat Jim Humphreys even though he's spent more than $ 6 million on the race.

Local officials say there are a number of reasons why Bush is competitive in West Virginia, but one stands out: Al Gore's ideas about environmental regulation. The implementation of these ideas would, by all accounts, harm West Virginia's coal industry. The Kyoto treaty, for example, which Gore champions, would require the United States to dramatically scale back carbon-dioxide emissions to ward off global warming. And according to a recent study by West Virginia University's College of Business and Economics, the treaty would mean a 25 percent reduction in coal production over 10 years, and nearly 43,000 jobs lost.

Democrats respond that this is hype. They cite Gore's endorsement by the United Mine Workers of America, which has 40,000 members in West Virginia. Yet the UMWA was the last major union to endorse Gore, on September 20, and it acted only after extracting written promises from him about protecting coal miners. The union's long-time president, Cecil Roberts, wrote recently in the Charleston Gazette that "some of [Gore's] environmental positions have smacked America's coal miners right in the face."

This fear of Gore among West Virginians has prompted Bush's campaign to devote significant resources to the state. Television ads have been running since Labor Day. Bush spoke at a rally in Charleston, the state capital, en route to the Republican national convention, and he mentioned his trip to West Virginia's "coal country" in the first presidential debate. Two visits from a presidential candidate may not seem like much, but according to Ken Hechler, the Democratic secretary of state and a political fixture, more attention has been lavished on West Virginia in this presidential campaign than in any since John F. Kennedy's victorious primary battle in 1960. That matters in a state usually overlooked in the general election -- Gore hasn't even campaigned in West Virginia. A number of local elected officials told me Bush's visits would win him considerable support. "He's made West Virginians feel special," says Vic Sprouse, Republican leader in the state Senate.

Bush will need all the help he can get in a state whose political history works against him. No non-incumbent GOP candidate for president has carried West Virginia since Herbert Hoover in 1928 (Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan won the state in their bids for reelection). Similarly, just six Republicans have been elected to statewide positions since 1932. And as recently as 1992, the 34-member state Senate had a single Republican; today it has 5.

Yet the climate is not uniformly hostile. Many West Virginia Democrats are cultural conservatives. (I attended a Democratic rally that began with the pledge of allegiance and a prayer.) And, traditionally poor, the state has seen few benefits of the economic boom. It still has the nation's highest unemployment rate (5 percent), second lowest per-capita income ($ 19,362), and third lowest percentage of households with computers (28.4 percent). Even some modern homes still use rotary-dial telephones, while fast-food restaurants advertise "picture menus" for the illiterate.