Focusing on the States: Lessons from West Virginia

By Brendan Benge, Contributing Writer

Jim Justice.jpg

For far too long, Democrats have ignored their party’s utter collapse in state and local elected offices across the country. After eight years of steady losses in crucial state legislative and gubernatorial races, the Democratic Party has seen its control over state governments fall to the lowest point in nearly a century. As a result, Republican-dominated state legislatures in places such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Michigan, where Democrats should theoretically be competitive, but in reality are not, have laid the groundwork for a wave of state-level conservative policies over the past five years, the effects of which range from blocking Medicaid expansions offered by Obamacare to implementing new anti-abortion laws. Accordingly, in order to begin the long trek back towards competitiveness at the state level, Democrats should start by taking a look at the success of West Virginia’s newly elected Democratic Governor, Jim Justice, as a guide to overhauling their approach to state and local campaigns across the country.

During an election cycle where Hillary Clinton scraped together just 26.5% of the vote in West Virginia, marking a record low for any Democratic candidate in the history of the state,Justice beat his Republican opponent for the top statewide office by a decisive 7-point margin. Democratic Party officials should take a closer look for reasons beyond such a wide margin of a victory. Justice’s campaign should also attract the attention of Democratic Party officials looking to bring their party back from the depths of state-level irrelevance because Justice won significant support from the white working class vote, which proved to be so disastrous nationally for Democrats in 2016. In order for the Democratic Party to replicate Jim Justice’s state-level success in West Virginia throughout the country, Democratic officials need to look at how Justice won by breaking away from the party’s rigid liberal orthodoxy while committing to the party’s core message of investing in people’s success.

Primarily, the most important lesson Democrats must take away from Justice’s campaign is that the party’s current emphasis on a uniformly liberal ideology will not win at the state level outside of a few solidly blue areas. For example, in West Virginia, where coal is king and few other opportunities exist or seem destined to ever exist for citizens so long ignored by national politicians, the national Democratic Party’s strict message of pro-environmental regulation simply does not appeal to state voters. In fact, when Secretary Clinton brought this liberal message of expanding on President Obama’s significant action on environmental regulation, even with the caveat of a $30 billion plan to retrain and support miners displaced by the decline of coal, West Virginians responded by dealing her a historic defeat. Meanwhile Justice, himself a billionaire coal executive, ran a campaign built on a strongly pro-energy platform and, as a result, was able to reach out to many of the coal miners and people living in coal towns who felt left behind by President Obama’s supposed war on coal. Justice knew his state, and in strategically deviating from the rigid liberal ideology of the national Democratic Party on this issue, Justice immediately expanded his support well beyond the narrow Democratic base voters open to, and supportive of, Clinton. Accordingly, as the Democratic Party begins to rebuild its state and local campaign outreach moving forward, party officials must learn from Justice’s successful rejection of liberal orthodoxy by supporting similar ideological variance in other elections. For instance, Democratic liberals must support state-level candidates in regions such as the South and Midwest who may agree with liberal stances on issues such as social welfare and Civil Rights, but may also lean conservative on guns or energy. Rather than forcing a one size fits all liberalism onto state candidates, the Democratic Party must accept variation to certain liberal policies, which do not appeal to the voters of a particular state.

While the Democratic Party should support diversity among its state level candidates on more fringe policies such as guns or energy, the party must also double down on its core economic message of investing in people and communities. For example, throughout the 2016 campaign, Justice offered West Virginia a bold alternative to the low taxes-small government policies of Republicans by promising to invest in education, health care, and infrastructure[a]. As a result, many of the same white working class voters who rejected the identity-based liberalism of the national Democratic Party that did not seem to address their needs, supported Justice because his economic message of investing in people’s success presented an inclusive platform they could get behind. Therefore, Justice’s ability to keep the support of white working class voters during an election cycle when this demographic abandoned the Democratic Party in droves highlights the need for state-level Democratic candidates running on an inclusive New Deal economic message of investing in all people. From West Virginia to Nevada and Ohio, state-level Democrats are falling victim to the idea that their party no longer cares for the working class. By strategically focusing on the party’s core message of investing in an economy that works for everyone, Democrats can begin to reverse this notion while taking back state governments at the same time.

Through an ideologically diverse collection of state-level candidates united behind an economic message of investing in public goods such as education and health care, Democrats can begin to replicate the success of Jim Justice in West Virginia in states across the nation. More importantly than winning elections however, by allowing more diversity and moderation among its candidates, the Democratic Party can return to the fundamental purpose of its existence, representing the people of the United States.