After more than eight decades as the minority party, state Republicans successfully recaptured the West Virginia Legislature. West Virginia Focus takes a look behind the scenes to see what made this possible.
Talking with Bill Cole, you get the sense he doesn’t use phrases like “over the moon” very often. But that’s how the baritone-voiced, serious-faced Senate President describes his frame of mind on election night 2014.
Although he was not up for reelection, Cole was the chairman for state Senator Evan Jenkins’ campaign for U.S. House of Representatives. He started off election night at a party for Jenkins in Huntington before hopping in his car and speeding down Interstate 64 toward Embassy Suites in Charleston, where Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito and members of the state GOP were watching election returns for her U.S. Senate race.
When he was about 10 miles outside the capital city, his cell phone rang with some big news. Jenkins had successfully unseated 38-year incumbent Congressman Nick Rahall. Cole kept the hammer down. “About the time I hit city limits, my phone started blowing up,” he says. It was more big news. The Republican Party, long relegated to a nearly powerless minority status in West Virginia politics, had taken control of the state House of Delegates. By the end of the night, the GOP also would succeed in tying the formerly Democrat-controlled state Senate.
The national Republican “wave,” as it was being called on cable news networks, had come crashing ashore in the landlocked Mountain State. “I was over the moon,” Cole says. “It was a phenomenal night.” The victory celebrations did not last long, however. By the next morning Cole was at the state Capitol, huddling with fellow Republican senators, trying to figure out how a 17-17 tie in the state Senate might work. Then the phone rang again, with a solution to their problem.
Daniel Hall, the 40-year-old Democratic state senator from Wyoming County, had an interesting election night as well. He spent much of 2014 working on the reelection campaign of his friend Raleigh County state Senator Mike Green, who was running against Republican challenger Jeff “Bubblegum” Mullins.
Shortly before the polls closed at 7:30 p.m., Hall sent Mullins a text message to congratulate him for a well-fought campaign. “I was fully confident Mike Green was going to win,” he says. Not long after, the first election returns were released. Green was trailing behind Mullins, but Hall remained optimistic. “I’ve been around politics long enough to know not to panic,” he says. The tide never turned, however. As each batch of poll results came through, Mullins remained in the lead. Hall noticed something else happening, too. All around the state, Republicans were beating their Democrat opponents.
He watched as the Associated Press called the 3rd Congressional District race for Jenkins. In Kanawha County, Delegate Doug Skaff—who was running for a seat in the state Senate—lost to political newcomer Tom Takubo. By the end of the night, Mullins would beat Green with nearly 57 percent of the vote. “All around the state, you’re talking about a complete swing,” Hall says. “I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.”
Soon, Hall got a text from Republican Senator Dave Sypolt, of Preston County. “He said, ‘You always said if it ever got close, you’d consider switching. I think 17-17 is pretty close.’” Sypolt was right; Hall had said that. In 2006 Hall ran for the House of Delegates in Raleigh County as a Republican, only to lose in the primaries. He thought he was finished with politics, got married and moved to Wyoming County, where he registered as a Democrat. “I changed parties just so I could vote,” he says. Like many places in the West Virginia coalfields, Democrats had such tight control of Wyoming County, the outcome of many local races was decided in primary elections. In general elections, Democrats either ran unopposed or faced very weak challengers.
Of course, Hall’s political career was far from over. In 2008 the newly minted Democrat ran for, and won, a seat in the House. After serving two terms in the lower chamber, he made a successful bid for the state Senate in 2012. From that time on, Hall says Republicans tried to court him back. “I said, ‘Guys, why would I join the minority party?’” Now things had changed. Hall tapped out a two-word message to Sypolt: “Let’s talk.”
The morning after the election, Hall had to be in Huntington for his day job with Frontier Communications. At some point that morning he found out Cole, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, and several other Senate Republicans had already convened at the Capitol. So as he was driving back to Charleston, following the same route Cole had taken the night before, Hall called up Carmichael to begin negotiating the terms of his defection.
Hall stopped at the Capitol that afternoon for face-to-face meetings with Cole and Carmichael. “I did make one demand that was turned down,” he says. Hall wanted to be the Senate Finance Committee chairman, but was informed former Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, of Putnam County, was taking that job. The leadership team instead offered Daniel Hall the position of Senate Majority Whip. He accepted. “Let’s be honest, we’re playing poker,” he says.
That afternoon Hall walked to the Secretary of State’s office on the Capitol’s first floor and switched his party affiliation. “We were going to wait until the next morning, and they said, ‘Let’s just go do it now.’ Some of them were nervous I would back out,” Hall says. “I said, ‘Fine, lets go.’” He waited until almost 5 p.m., hoping he could sneak in and do the paperwork without anyone noticing. “Somebody in the office tweeted it out and within a little bit it was viral,” he says. Reporters jumped on the story and, within the hour, the news was all over the state: The GOP had successfully taken control of both houses of the West Virginia Legislature for the first time in more than 80 years.
He wrote a post on his Facebook page to explain the decision. “Political climates change, and I made a decision today to keep Raleigh, Wyoming, and McDowell counties at the table in the West Virginia Senate,” he wrote. “I have always picked our people over party … and did today as well. This decision will upset some, but had to be made for our district to be relevant.”
His constituents largely did not mind the switch—“If I can deliver, they’re not going to care,” Hall says—but his decision did upset some members of his former caucus. “Overall it’s been great. A few of them will never get over it.” It’s easy to understand why. With one swipe of a pen, Hall cast Democrats into a role they had never played under the current Capitol building’s big gold dome. Suddenly, historically, they were the minority party.
The change in leadership at the statehouse has been described as a “Republican wave,” but the phenomenon is more akin to a volcanic eruption than a tsunami. The signs were there if you paid attention. For instance, West Virginia has been trending red in national elections for some time. The state has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1996. Voters in the state’s 1st congressional district elected Representative David McKinley in 2010, making him the first Republican to serve that district since Arch Moore left the seat to become governor in 1969. Moore’s daughter, Shelley Moore Capito, remained vastly popular in the 2nd congressional district since she was elected to the House of Representatives in 2000. And while Rahall was able to keep his seat through several fiercely contested races, in recent years his margin of victory over Republican challengers shrank with every election.
As Republicans made inroads on the federal level, voters began electing more Republicans in state races, too. The GOP has steadily gained seats in the House of Delegates since 2006. In 2012 voters picked Republican candidate Patrick Morrisey over longtime Attorney General Darrell McGraw.
This rising swell of Republican support joined with several other factors in 2014 to pave the way for a leadership change in the statehouse. First, President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular in West Virginia, which turned many voters against state Democrats, too. Republican voters also were motivated to get out to the polls, thanks to several high-profile races at the top of the general election ballot: Capito was running for retiring Senator Jay Rockefeller’s seat, Jenkins was running against Rahall, Alex Mooney was vying for Capito’s old House of Representatives seat, and McKinley was up for reelection.
Jason Crowder, a Cole staffer who first moved to West Virginia to help run his boss’s 2012 state Senate campaign, says Republicans also managed to out-campaign Democrats. Crowder says the GOP worked hard to recruit a slate of top-notch candidates, then used data on voter registration and voter turnout trends to target areas where their message would be most effective. “Like anything, it’s planning and execution,” he says.
Although there was some sense the House of Delegates might flip in the 2014 election, not many people believed the state Senate would follow suit. But about two weeks before Election Day, Crowder began handicapping Democrat and Republican campaigns. It became clear the GOP had a real shot at taking control of both chambers. “If you look at it district by district, it tells a different story,” he says.
Take, for instance, the sixth state Senate district. State Senator Truman Chafin had represented the district since 1982, so no one expected much when political newcomer Mark Maynard signed up to face him in November’s election. Maynard didn’t even raise money for his campaign. According to the Associated Press, he just spent some money out of his pocket to have pamphlets printed, and someone donated $350 in yard signs to his campaign. Yet, to the shock of many, Maynard eked out a victory over Chafin, taking the seat by fewer than 400 votes.
Crowder wasn’t surprised, however. He says Chafin’s district was redrawn in 2011 to include new sections of Mercer County, where voters did not have a strong historical connection to the longtime lawmaker. Maynard also had a geographical advantage because he lived in Wayne County. “So many people vote addresses in West Virginia,” Crowder says. Maynard also had another advantage Chafin did not—the “R” beside his name on the ballot. Crowder says Chafin, like many Democrats across the state, did not think Republicans would put up such a strong fight. They dismissed their opponents, at their own peril. “They didn’t expect it. It’s easier to do when people think it’s impossible,” he says.
Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler agrees. He says his party did not see the Republican wave coming—although he’s not sure Republicans did, either. “Politics are volatile. Nobody’s backside is welded to any of these seats,” he says. Kessler admits Democrats are partly to blame for their losses, however. Instead of touting their accomplishments—like repealing the state’s food and business franchise taxes, privatizing worker’s compensation, tackling the state’s mounting pension debts, and expanding Medicaid to more than 150,000 previously uninsured state residents—Democrats chose instead to let their challengers control the conversation. “We were so unwilling to call ourselves Democrats because of the association with federal Democrats we stood back, kept our mouths shut, wrung our hands and hoped our two-to-one (voter registration) average played out,” he says. “We did a terrible job of giving the electorate a reason to rehire us.”
While he’s not happy with the outcome of the election, Kessler says Democrats still have an important role to play in the Legislature. They no longer have the privilege of setting the Legislature’s agenda, but they still can work to influence the agenda set by Republicans.
That’s probably easier done in the Senate, however, where the majority hangs on one vote. Democrats in the House of Delegates have a bit more working against them. “It’s much harder to play defense when one team has a lot more people on the field,” says Kanawha County Delegate Mike Pushkin. Pushkin was one of the few first-time Democrat lawmakers elected last year, so he has no idea what it was like to serve in the majority party. But he says many Democrat lawmakers have found the change in leadership frustrating. “There’s a lot of people who have served for a long time, and they’ve won every battle they’ve fought for years. That’s not happening now,” he says.
House Minority Leader Tim Miley’s frustration is palpable. “We have … very little, if any, influence on what gets on agendas,” he says. Democrats have managed to amend some bills, but nothing that diverts too dramatically from the Republican leadership’s original intentions. “The working relationship has been very cordial, but that doesn’t mean there’s been a whole lot of compromise,” he says. “I believe it was different in the past … but that’s politics. When you have a new majority with a new ideology, they don’t have to compromise.” Miley, who served as speaker of the House during the Democrats’ last session as the majority party, says he is concerned the Legislature will make lots of concessions for corporate interests, but do little to help average citizens. “There’s very little that’s going to be done to help individual families in West Virginia,” he says.
Newly elected House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican from Kanawha County, does not share his predecessor’s sentiments. “I really believe the voters have called for change, and we’re giving them change,” he says. “So many of the things we’ve tried to do for years, we’re finally able to get them on the agenda.” The party wasted no time getting to work. Within days of the new session’s start, the Republicans were running bills to ban abortions after 20 weeks of gestation, establish charter schools, abolish straight-ticket voting, create alternative certification requirements for teachers, establish nonpartisan elections for judges, repeal prevailing wage requirements for state construction projects, audit the state Department of Highways, and reinstate a section of code protecting private property owners from lawsuits if dangers on their property are “open and obvious,” among other things.
Democrats, for the most part, only succeeded in making piecemeal changes to legislation. But the party was not without its victories. Senate Democrats convinced two of their Republican colleagues—Hall and Sen. Chris Walters—to side with the minority and defeat a bill that would limit cash awards in civil lawsuits. Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee also were able to convince their GOP colleagues to table a bill requiring photo identification at voting booths. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, a Democrat from Pendleton County, successfully amended a revenue bill to divert about $1.5 million annually from the state lottery fund for “veteran-related projects.”
Democrats have also joined their Republican colleagues to support many pieces of legislation, including a repeal of the Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act. The law, originally passed in 2009, would have required state power plants to begin using more alternative fuels, including clean coal technologies. Republicans decried the legislation as a “cap and trade” law, saying it would hurt the state’s coal industry and raise families’ utility bills. Some Democrats argued the bill wouldn’t do anything at all, except maybe give the impression West Virginia is not interested in alternative energies. Republican lawmakers pushed the bill forward, however, and it eventually passed the House on a 95-4 vote and the Senate with a unanimous vote. It was the first bill to land on the governor’s desk in the 2015 legislative session.
“There’s an energy here you’ve never seen before,” Armstead says. “Our goal was to be running legislation in the first week. There is a natural procrastination to the legislative process. Our view is, we have 60 days to make significant changes and we don’t want to waste any of those days.” During his 16 years in the minority party, Armstead says the 60-day session seemed to stretch on forever. It seems to go much faster now that his caucus is running the show.
Armstead is the first Republican Speaker of the House to serve in the marbled halls of the current West Virginia Capitol building. Cass Gilbert’s grand statehouse did not open its doors until June 1932, just six months after Republicans ceded control of the Legislature.
Armstead says he tries not to think about his place in West Virginia history, but it sometimes creeps up on him. It usually happens when he’s standing behind his podium at the front of the House chamber. He remembers, early in the session, watching as members debated nonpartisan elections for judges. Republicans have supported the idea for years but never had any success getting it through the legislative process. “It just hit me—we are on the floors of this house, discussing this issue,” Armstead says. “I want the people of West Virginia to look back at 2015 and say, ‘That’s when we changed the direction of our state.’”
Too Soon to Tell
Despite those 83 years wandering in the wilderness of political obscurity, Republicans once had a long, successful run in West Virginia politics. According to the West Virginia Encyclopedia, Republicans dominated the West Virginia Legislature for the first eight years of the state’s existence. And though Democrats would gain control in the early 1870s, the GOP again rose to prominence following the election of 1896.
“We were a progressive state, as progressive as any around us,” says West Virginia State University history professor Billy Joe Peyton. The demand for coal was growing by leaps and bounds, especially after competition from European coal markets dwindled after World War I. That boded well for West Virginia’s economy, as well as Republicans’ pro-business policies. “We became the world’s number one industrial nation, and coal was powering that industry,” Peyton says.
But toward the mid-1920s, European economies began to rebound. It was good news for the global economy, but bad for West Virginia coal mines. “Our production dropped because demand decreased. The price of coal went down, wages went down, miners went out of work,” Peyton says. Although the Great Depression was still years away, the state’s economy began to slip—taking with it Republicans’ foothold in the statehouse. “It’s the party in charge that gets the blame, even if they’re not responsible,” Peyton says. “The Republican Party was the face of the collapse.” The West Virginia House of Delegates flipped to Democratic control after the election of 1930, when voters added 37 Democrats to the lower chamber, giving the party a 68-26 majority.
The transformation was complete in 1932. Voters nationwide went looking for change and found it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s promise of a “New Deal.” The Democrats’ sweep in Washington was matched in West Virginia with the election of 22 more Democratic lawmakers, giving the party a 24-6 majority in the state Senate and a 79-15 majority in the House. Voters also elected Governor Herman Kump, the second Democratic chief executive in 40 years.
It would be more than 80 years before the floodwaters would recede. At times, Republican numbers in the House of Delegates got so small the entire caucus could fit in a family sedan.
The parallels are evident. Just like the 1930s, we have the combination of a flagging coal market, voter dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and a contentious national political climate creating a surge that carried the minority party into power. What remains to be seen, Peyton says, is whether it will last this time. “As a historian, it’s years before you can assess change. It’s too early to tell right now,” he says. “Everybody’s talking about change, but until we see what the results are, you might as well just throw up a coin and see how it lands.”
Written by Zach Harold
Photo Courtesy of Martin Valent, WV Legislative Photography