After historic losses, where does the WV Dem party go from here?
Following disastrous election cycles in 2014 and 2016 the West Virginia Democratic Party, once the dominant political force in the state, is faced with the age old question the losing side of any election must face “Where do we go from here?”
Commentators and Democratic activists from across the state have pontificated over anecdotal evidence and have crunched numbers in an effort to lay the groundwork for a better cycle in 2018.
Jeremy Cook, a former Capitol Hill staffer and native of Berkeley County, believes a renewed focus on the economy will serve Democratic candidates well, but highlights a plight the state party faces.
“The West Virginia Democratic establishment is caught between trying to move forward by emulating the more progressive success of states like New York and California, and addressing the unique socio-political demographics of West Virginia,” said Cook.
He asserts “more liberal” voters don’t invest time or money in the state party because many of the top candidates take moderate or conservative positions on hot button social and environmental issues. Cook argues these some of these voters either side with the Mountain Party (the state’s Green Party affiliate) or become dormant.
“Economic populism must be the centerpiece of the strategy, but it must be communicated without a sense of elitism that does not reflect the lifestyle of West Virginians,” said Cook.
Aneesh Sompalli, a graduate of WVU and Shepherd University’s School of Graduate Studies, agrees with Cook’s argument that simply mimicking the national platform won’t serve Democrats well in the state.
“I think West Virginia Democrats need to put forth fresh ideas that resonate” with voters, he said. “That doesn’t have to mean a more progressive platform.”
Cook and Sompalli both agree the Democrats in West Virginia need to focus more on jobs and the economy and less on cultural wedge issues which have led other once Democratic states, like Kentucky and Arkansas, to now be out of reach for the party on both the federal and state level.
Rod Snyder, who served as the president of the West Virginia Young Democrats and the Young Democrats of America, believes a return to power may be in the future for his party in the state.
“If the populist movement in this country persists, the Democratic Party will ultimately be in a position to deliver results for working families in West Virginia while Republican leaders continue to do the bidding of their large corporate patrons,” he said.
While Cook, Sompalli, and Snyder are all in the age range of the millennial generation, some fellow young West Virginia Democrats want more liberal ideas to be adopted by the state party.
Alex Severson, a graduate student at Shepherd University, registered to vote at 18 as a Republican, became an Independent after a few years, and is now a registered Democrat.
Severson explains his shift is a result of his “close alignment” with the liberal positions on “social justice and equality issues.” While he admits these positions are not necessarily shared by all West Virginia voters, he hopes the state party can offer up plans that “ensure justice and opportunity for all people, not just certain groups” in the state.
Clearly the current focus of Democrats in West Virginia isn’t aligning well with the mood of voters.
Governor-elect Jim Justice, a billionaire Democrat and first time candidate, nearly spoke exclusively of jobs and education, while eschewing the national party. Perhaps his laser focus on jobs and a diversified economy can lead other Democrats to victory in future cycles.
H. S. Leigh Koonce is a sixth-generation West Virginian. He writes from Jefferson County.