Republican voter registration has overtaken Democratic registration in West Virginia for the first time since 1932. Figures from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office show there are now 448,924 registered Republicans (36.81 percent) and 444,609 Democrats (36.46 percent), with 275,469 with no party affiliation (22.6 percent).
The shift in West Virginia’s political landscape has its roots in the 2000 election. Republican George W. Bush beat Democrat Al Gore for the presidency. Bush won West Virginia, becoming the first non-incumbent Republican to carry the state since Herbert Hoover in 1928.
But more important to the seismic change in West Virginia politics occurred in a down ballot race. Republican Shelley Moore Capito defeated Democrat Jim Humphreys in the 2nd District Congressional race.
It was close—Capito 48 percent, Humphreys 46 percent, and six percent for Libertarian John Brown. Capito arrived on Capitol Hill as an outlier—a Republican from the Democratic stronghold of West Virginia.
(Republicans Cleve Benedict and Mick Staton were elected to the House of Representatives from West Virginia in 1980, but each served only one term.)
In the 2002 midterm election, Capito and Humphreys were matched again, but this time it was not close. Capito won re-election with 60 percent of the vote, and she was off and running. Her election was not a fluke, but rather a harbinger of the state’s political shift.
West Virginia was still heavily Democratic, but Capito built on her victories by working with others to expand the Republican Party in West Virginia.
“These efforts included everything from actively recruiting Republican candidates for local and federal positions to campaigning and raising money, to working with other campaigns to unify messages and get out the vote, and more,” Capito told me.
The 2014 election was a milestone. Capito used her race for the U.S. Senate as a platform to try to further Republican gains in all races. As a result, West Virginia’s House and Senate both turned Republican for the first time since the 1930s.
As the national Democratic Party moved farther to the left, Capito and the Republicans reached out to West Virginia voters—Democrats and Independents—who believed the Democratic Party no longer adhered to principles they cared about.
Donald Trump’s 2016 and 2020 races accelerated the shift, culminating in a GOP tidal wave in West Virginia last November. Republicans now have supermajorities in state House and Senate. The Governorship and the rest of the Board of Public Works are all Republicans. All three members of the U.S. House of Representatives are Republicans.
Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin is the last man standing against the Republican tide.
“This is a tremendous difference from two decades ago, Capito said, “and it shows just how much progress the Republican Party has made at various levels.”
Capito has probably lost count of how many local Lincoln Day fund raising dinners she has attended over the years, how many phone calls she has made to prospective candidates, and how many times she has contributed to various campaigns.
But as the latest voter registration numbers demonstrate, the two-decade long effort has contributed significantly toward tilting West Virginia from blue to deep red.