By SAMANTHA PERRY
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
As a bitter gubernatorial campaign plays out in the Commonwealth, voters are once again being asked to take a side — Democrat or Republican. It’s not a new debate, but one that’s been ongoing for decades. And the marketing is always similar: Working man versus the rich. Labor or management. Liberal values or conservative.
We know the party platforms, but years ago they did not seem so extreme — so far left or far right. Now the anger escalating from both sides of the aisles is almost deafening. Extremist views espouse the glory of the party. Love it or hate it. My way or the highway.
During my introduction to West Virginia politics many years ago, voting was a much simpler practice. One knew the candidates and their party affiliation. Many voted straight-party tickets, but occasionally lines were crossed.
In many cases socioeconomic status mirrored voting choices. Working class men and their families voted for Democratic candidates; those more well to do tended to cast ballots for Republicans. Of course back in those days, Dems dominated the polls in the Mountain State.
My grandfather was a coal miner, a union man and proud Democrat who appreciated the party’s stance on social and economic values. He experienced firsthand the difference in working conditions before and after the union. It changed his life, and the life of his family. His job was always dangerous, but was made less hazardous in later years by the United Mine Workers of America.
We were a family that did not cross picket lines.
In my grandfather’s retirement years, his bumper sticker still proclaimed his cause: “I am a UMWA pensioner. I still support my union.”
My grandfather’s party of choice was mirrored by many across the state. In 1980, West Virginia was one of only six states to back Jimmy Carter over Ronald Reagan and, in 1988, it was one of only 10 states to support Michael Dukakis over George H.W. Bush. In the 1990s, Bill Clinton enjoyed the Mountain State’s support.
However, in 2002 things began to change when Republican George W. Bush was victorious over Democrat Al Gore. While those looking from the outside may have been surprised by the defeat, many residents of the state were not shocked.
While Gore may have shared the same party affiliation of most registered voters, many believed he did not share their values. And as unsuccessful candidates have learned, values and ideals are important to the people of West Virginia.
The shift in party support is evident in the voter registration numbers in Mercer County. Clerk Verlin Moye said in 1990 percentages of registered voters were .683 Democrat, .262 Republican and .055 independent and no-party.
In 2008, Democrat numbers had dropped to .555 and Republicans to .256, while the number of independent and no-party registered voters increased to .186.
Since 2008, the year in which President Obama took office and his administration’s anti-coal campaign began, Democrats have lost many more voters, .05 percent, to the independent and no-party categories, compared to a Republican loss of .003 percent.
At present, .509 percent of the county’s voters are registered Democrats, .253 percent are Republican and .235 are independent and no-party.
Moye said the trend seems to be “heading toward the middle,” as officials register more and more voters with moderate views associated with both parties.
Nowadays, it seems not so much a matter of one’s paycheck that determines the vote at the polls but morals, faith, beliefs and convictions.
And the views expressed from both sides of the aisle can seem very liberal and very conservative. Press releases we receive from opposing camps underscore extremist points of view. Anti-women. Anti-business. Anti-gay. Anti-abortion. Anti-gun. Anti-coal.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when party lines turned so extreme they became a little scary for moderates. Where does someone go if they are both pro-gun and pro-gay marriage? What about those who are strongly anti-abortion but also view climate change and environmental destruction as a very real threat?
The Democratic and Republican parties have never been one size fits all. But, as of late, it appears more and more voters in West Virginia are having a difficult time being comfortable with the parties’ platforms.
Independent and no-party registration may be the only safe haven for those whose views lean more toward the middle than the far left or far right.
I grew up listening to my grandfather’s tales of the early days of mining. Despite the dangers and risks associated with the profession, he was proud of his job.
He was proud that coal built the nation’s skyscrapers. He was proud of the role it played in winning World War II. And proud that it powered much of the nation.
If he were alive today, I wonder, would he still be a proud Democrat?
Samantha Perry is editor of the Daily Telegraph. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @BDTPerry.