Republican majorities in West Virginia Senate, House intact after high turnout election

CHARLESTON — In a year in which thousands of teachers descended on the state Capitol and the Republican legislative majority’s first midterm election since taking both chambers in 2014, the party of Lincoln will maintain control of the statehouse for two more years.

“From a historical perspective, a midterm election is one which the party in charge typically absorbs significant losses,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. “We drastically broke that trend. This was one of the most difficult environments imaginable from an election perspective.”

According to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office, unofficial turnout for the Nov. 6 general election was 47 percent, with some precincts around the state still seeing lines when polls closed at 7:30 p.m. More people voted during the two-week early voting period than any previous early voting period.

Some of the turnout was attributed to unions, including teachers and labor unions. WV Patriots for Liberty, a union-funded political action committee, spent nearly $700,000 to unseat Republican legislators with almost daily mailers and radio ads. Teachers, who went on strike for days in February and rallied by the thousands in Charleston during the legislative session, also held events in October.

The rally cry was “Remember in November” and “55 United.” But after all the spending and rallies, Tuesday’s election only resulted in a Republican loss of five seats in the House and two seats in the Senate.

“At the end of day, we’re very pleased with the election results,” Carmichael said. “The people of West Virginia — the citizens — have rewarded the Republican Party with the leadership of the state. They have embraced and reaffirmed the direction of our state by overwhelming majorities.”

FOUR MORE YEARS

The Republican legislative majority is still a relatively new thing. Prior to 2014, the Democratic Party had maintained control of the legislature for 80 years.

While there were many attempts to flip the legislature, including a botched effort by former coal baron Don Blankenship in the mid-2000s, Republicans first started chipping away at the Democratic majority in the House in 2012.

It was the 2014 midterm that swept Republicans into the House leadership. Republicans held a 64-seat majority, with Democrats holding 41 seats. The Senate ended up tied with 17 Republicans and 17 Democrats, until former state Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, changed his party registration shortly afterward and gave Republicans an 18-seat majority.

The 2016 election was the Republicans first real election test. The previous two years saw the passage of Right to Work and the elimination of prevailing wage for construction projects. The major unions banded together to fund a political action committee called West Virginia Family Values to go after Republicans who voted against the interests of the unions.

What Democrats were not counting on was the popularity of Donald Trump, who carried the state with 68.63 percent of the vote in the 2016 general election. Republicans were able to maintain their numbers at 64 seats in the House, while the Senate grew by four — from 18 to 22 members.

ELECTION AFTERMATH

Legislative Republicans can breathe a sigh of relief, but that doesn’t mean that they didn’t come out of the 2018 general election unscathed. The House lost five Republicans, lowering their seats from 64 to 59. The Senate dropped from 22 Republican seats to 20.

House losses include newly appointed House Majority Leader Riley Moore, R-Jefferson. Jefferson County also lost Delegate Jill Upson. In Monongalia County, Republicans lost Joe Statler and Cindy Frich. Marion County lost Delegate Guy Ward. In Kanawha County, Republicans lost Delegate Charlotte Lane. The Senate lost Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. They also lost state Sen. Ed Gaunch, who represented parts of Kanawha and Putnam counties.

The House also lost 10 incumbents in both parties but picked up 23 freshmen delegates. Voters also elected members previously appointed by Gov. Jim Justice to fill vacancies. These include Tom Azinger, R-Wood; Daniel Linville, R-Cabell; Diana Graves, R-Kanawha; Sharon Malcolm, R-Kanawha; Jeff Campbell, D-Greenbrier; and Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha.

Some members elected Tuesday — such as Tom Azinger — had also served in the House in earlier years. Others include Scott Cadle, R-Mason; Terry Waxman, R-Harrison; Larry Kump, R-Berkeley; Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock; Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette; Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha; and John Doyle, D-Jefferson.

Republicans in the Senate will have three new members: Eric Tarr, R-Putnam; Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; and Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh. Two appointed senators — Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier — also won election to the Senate. Democrats will have new members William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, and Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha.

REMEMBER IN NOVEMBER?

The West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers took credit for the Republican losses on Election Day in a Facebook post the following day.

“While there were some heartbreaking losses last night, there are reasons to celebrate in some areas,” according to the post. “We were able to defeat the majority leaders in both chambers. We picked up seats in the Senate for the first time in many years.”

Carmichael, who bore the brunt of negative campaigning during his 2016 re-election and an onslaught of outrage from teachers’ union leaders, discounted the effect the unions had statewide on Tuesday’s election.

“Some of the union leadership is distorted and misguided, but the union members — the teachers themselves — did remember that they had not received pay raises under a Democratic-controlled legislature for many years,” Carmichael said. “Their PEIA rates have been going up and up and up under Democrat leadership. With Republican control of the legislature and our economy that we’ve turned around, we provided the largest pay raise in state history. We did it without a tax increase and we did it within the 60-day legislative session.”

According to unofficial results, Democratic victories were exclusively in Kanawha, Ohio, Monongalia, Marion and Jefferson counties. Despite seeing shrinking population, Kanawha County still has the largest population of any county in the state, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and home to the capital of the state. Ohio County is home to Wheeling, Monongalia County is home to Morgantown (and West Virginia University), and Jefferson County is one of the state’s fastest-growing counties.

“This was ground zero for a teacher strike that spread to other states across the country,” Carmichael said. “There is a statewide Democratic voter advantage, and there was this talk of a blue wave that was circulating across the nation. But against that backdrop, the people of West Virginia — with whom I am so proud — said yes, West Virginia is on the right path.”

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