West Virginia Tells The Story Of America's Shifting Political Climate | KUOW News and Information

West Virginia Tells The Story Of America's Shifting Political Climate

Oct 24, 2015
Originally published on October 24, 2015 8:04 am

As Democrats gain from the nation's growing diversity — attracting solid majorities among Hispanic and African American voters — Republicans are gaining among white, working-class voters, a group that was once a Democratic stronghold.

Nowhere is this clearer than in West Virginia, where the president touched down this week to talk about drug addiction.

A few hours before Air Force One was due to land in Charleston, an anti-Obama rally took shape outside the state capitol building.

A dozen speakers, including local officials and state and federal office holders took turns attacking the president for environmental policies they say are killing the coal industry.

"We are going to win the war on coal. We have to stay strong, we have to stand together, and we absolutely have to get through the [2016] election," said Chris Hamilton of the state-funded West Virginia Coal Forum.

About 75 people stand listening, some with signs. There was: "Obama your change destroyed our hope." And another that exclaims, "Obama is not West Virginia's president!"

Today there are few places where Obama is less liked. For decades, though, Democrats could count on West Virginia voters in presidential contests, with only rare exceptions. But Bill Clinton is the last Democrat to carry the state, and in 2012 Obama received just 35 percent of the vote.

Charlotte Kainser, who's married to a retired miner, holds a sign that says "Coal Miners Matter." She shakes her head at the state's worst-in-the-nation jobless rate.

"The economy's bad – bad, bad, bad," Kainser says. "So why would you really want to come to West Virginia? Why would you want to live here?"

Young people are leaving the state in search of jobs, and the overall population is aging.

Kainser says she's still a registered Democrat, but one who can't remember the last Democratic nominee she voted for. That's not uncommon. As for this year, she kind of likes Mike Huckabee — and Donald Trump.

"I vote for the best person," she says. "When it comes down to the main election I would vote for Trump on top of Hillary Clinton," and probably over any of the Democrats, she adds.

A couple hours north is the campus of West Virginia University. Twenty-year-old Dakota Workman grew up in coal country and comes from a family of Democrats going back many generations. But when Workman registered to vote for the first time, he declared himself a Republican.

"My mom called my grandma and told her, 'You'll never believe your grandson just came home registered Republican.' And my grandma was like, 'Well, good job, I voted Republican since Bush's first election,' " he says, even though she was registered as a Democrat.

Workman, vice chair of the local College Republicans, is a perfect example of what has happened in the state.

White, working-class Democrats are abandoning the party over environmental issues like coal, and on things like gun rights and abortion. There's been a similar shift among such voters nationally.

Meanwhile, still loyal Democrats in the state, like Samantha Shimer, are frustrated by the turn of events.

"For West Virginia, I would say that I feel kind of rock bottom," says the West Virginia University sophomore. "However, my views on the political shift in the country as a whole is it's shifting progressively."

That's good news nationally, she says, but she feels her home state is being left behind, using an analogy:

"West Virginia is one of those little speed bumps," she says. "But that's the boat West Virginia is in right now."

The state may be a speed bump for progressive Democrats, but it's a rising stronghold for Republicans.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Here's a new cold, hard fact in American politics. As Democrats gain from the nation's growing diversity, attracting majorities among Latino and African-American voters, Republicans are gaining among white working-class voters, a group that was once strongly Democratic. Nowhere is this more apparent than in West Virginia. NPR's Don Gonyea was there with week when the president touched down.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: It was midmorning in Charleston. Air Force One wouldn't land for a few more hours, but an anti-Obama rally was taking shape outside the state Capitol building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRIS HAMILTON: Is the PA system on? Isn't? Am not - is not. There, I think we can go from here. Allow me to welcome everybody. I'm Chris...

GONYEA: A dozen speakers, local officials, state and federal officeholders and others take turns, each attacks the president for environmental policies, which they say are killing the coal industry. Chris Hamilton is with the state-funded West Virginia Coal Forum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HAMILTON: We are going to win the war on coal.

(APPLAUSE)

HAMILTON: We have to stay strong. We have to stand together, and we absolutely have to get through the 2016 election.

GONYEA: About 75 people stood listening. Some held signs. There was - Obama, your change destroyed our hope. And another - Obama is not West Virginia's president. Today, there are few places where Obama is less liked. But for decades, Democrats could count on West Virginia voters in presidential contests with only rare exceptions. But Bill Clinton is the last Democrat to carry the state. In 2012, Obama got just 35 percent of the vote. Charlotte Kainser was at the rally with a sign that said coal miners matter. Her husband is a retired miner. She shakes her head at the state's worst in the nation jobless rate.

CHARLOTTE KAINSER: The economy's bad, like bad, bad, bad. So why - you know, why would you really want to come to West Virginia? Why would you want to live here, you know?

GONYEA: Young people are leaving the state in search of jobs, and the overall population is aging. Kainser says she's still a registered Democrat but one who can't remember the last Democratic nominee she voted for. That's not uncommon. As for this year, she kind of likes Mike Huckabee - and Donald Trump.

KAINSER: But I vote for the best person. When it comes down to the main election, I would vote for Trump over top of Hillary Clinton.

GONYEA: Trump over any of the Democrats?

KAINSER: Probably.

GONYEA: A couple of hours to the north is the campus of West Virginia University. Twenty-year-old Dakota Workman grew up in coal country. He's from a family of Democrats going back many generations. But when Workman registered to vote for the first time, he declared himself a Republican.

DAKOTA WORKMAN: My mom called my grandma and told her. She's like, you know, you never believe your grandson just came home, registered Republican. And my grandma was like, well, good job. She's like, I voted Republican since - from Bush's first election.

GONYEA: Even though she was a Democrat?

WORKMAN: Yeah. So it wasn't really a big shift.

GONYEA: Workman, who is the vice chair of the local College Republicans, is a perfect example of what has happened in this state - white, working-class Democrats abandoning the party over environmental issues and coal and on things like gun rights and abortion. It's the story of West Virginia, but there's been a similar shift among such voters nationally. Meanwhile, still-loyal Democrats in the state are frustrated by the turn of events. Samantha Shimer is a sophomore at West Virginia University.

SAMANTHA SHIMER: For West Virginia, I would say that I feel kind of rock bottom. However, my views on the political shift in the country, as a whole, is it's shifting progressively.

GONYEA: That's good news nationally, she says, but she feels her home state is being left behind. She uses this analogy.

SHIMER: West Virginia is one of those little speed bumps. But that's the boat that West Virginia's in right now.

GONYEA: A speed bump for progressive Democrats, but a new stronghold for Republicans. Don Gonyea, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.