West Virginia Democrats aren't warming up to Obama.
by Salena Zito
09/01/2008, Volume 013, Issue 47
Chestnut Hill, West Virginia
"Obama and his message just do not gel with me," said Mark Lamp as he climbed into his utility truck. Lamp, 47, from neighboring Weirton, is a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton in the May primary.
"My first problem with him is taxes, the second is experience," he explained.
Lamp has worked in construction all of his life, and the company he works for builds houses in the tri-state area. "We have been busy all year." He sees very few signs of the economy or gas prices hurting him, and they are not what drives his vote.
"I vote leadership. That is why I voted for Hillary and why I will vote McCain."
Al Gore failed to connect with West Virginia voters in 2000--the state had gone Democratic since Reagan's 1984 reelection campaign. John Kerry carried that tradition forward by only getting 43 percent of the vote in 2004.
All signs are pointing to Obama facing similar numbers.
"I will admit we have an uphill battle," said Tom Vogel, West Virginia's Democratic state party executive director, "but I haven't given up yet."
"West Virginia went big for Hillary Clinton in this spring's primary," admits Vogel. "They love her, and they loved her husband."
Vogel's field director Derek Scarbro says part of the problem Obama has is the same problem that any national Democrat has coming to West Virginia: "West Virginians have to get to know you and develop a relationship with you."
Getting to know Obama may be a problem. Once thought to be a battleground state, all indications are that West Virginia is off Obama's campaign map. Turn on the television today and you won't find any Obama ads running, and he has no trips to the state planned in the immediate future. (Sources within the campaign say they are keeping their eye on the state.)
West Virginia is still home to the Jacksonian Democrats, those descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who vote God, country, and guns, and have a stronger than average distrust of government. They are white, lower middle-class union members who work hard, play by the rules, have faith in God and a hefty dose of patriotism.
In a change election when the country goes one way, a few states always trend the other. Kansas went Republican during the liberal trend of the 1960s, and West Virginia may go conservative during the liberal swing of today.
In a state that has just one area code (in Jackson County everyone shares the same exchange, so when you ask for a number they only give you the last four digits), the geopolitical breakdown is monolithic. The only section that has proven liberal Democratic is the eastern panhandle which is fast becoming a suburb of Washington, D.C.
But from the southern coalfields to the northern panhandle (which is really southwestern Pennsylvania, and Catholic Democrat country) you are entering the land that the national Democratic party forgot.
Conversely on the state level there is only one party that controls everything: Democrats, old school Democrats. The state's long-time senator, Robert Byrd, is the perfect example. He endorsed Obama, but only after Obama was pummeled by Hillary in his state's primary. He joined West Virginia's other senator, John D. Rockefeller IV, who was an early supporter of the Illinois senator.
You might have thought that the endorsement of a former governor and sitting senator, and the institutional support that comes with it, would have carried more weight and votes. It did not.
Rockefeller's appeal is based on spending lots of money to win his office. "When he ran for governor and then later for senator," Purdue political scientist Bert Rockman explains, "one would have thought he was running from Pennsylvania since he blanketed the Pittsburgh television stations. He spent money as though he was, er, a Rockefeller."
Rockman says that is how he got there and stays there. Which makes it hard to call someone from, say, southern West Virginia a "Rockefeller Democrat." Voters may vote for him, but they don't identify with him.
The only Republican who looks a likely challenger to this Democratic hegemony is Representative Shelly Moore Capito. The daughter of a former governor, Arch Moore, she will likely run for senator or governor by 2010 or 2012.
Vogel has his eyes on Capito's seat, though; he thinks he can take her out with an Obama win in West -Virginia. "She came in on Bush's coat tails and will go out with Obama's," said Vogel, who pauses and then says, "hopefully."
Kent Gates, a GOP strategist working on Capito's House race, dismisses Vogel's weak optimism. "Democrats in West Virginia are just not in line with the national Democratic party."
Gates says Bush's victory in 2000 and the election of Capito show the state is moving right.
Vogel is from western Pennsylvania, and he sees similarities between his Democrats and the ones he grew up with. "There are large pockets of Ohio and Pennsylvania where the mindset and voting patterns are very similar." "If [Obama] comes here, it will make a difference," insists Vogel.
Mark Lamp doesn't see multiple visits making a dent in anyone's view of Obama in West Virginia: "He just does not display any of the qualities that gave Hillary my vote."
Salena Zito is a political reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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