Appalachia Today: Part 12 – Changing Political Forces in the Region

For well over half a century, Appalachia was strongly tied to the Democratic Party through the power of Rooseveltian working class politics. While the coal industry and corrupt county political machines dominated a good part of the state and local political scene, the machine was dominated by the Democratic Party. Working class voters were solidly Democratic, backed by a strong and sometime militant labor movement, led by the United Mine Workers of America.

UMWA Has Been A Strong Supporter of the Democratic Party

Photo: UMWA Local 2300 member Ronny Stickles and UMWA Local 2300 member Al Loring discuss Barack Obama’s record of supporting working families at the Cumberland Coal Mine. (Source: Molly Theobald)

The United Mine Workers of America was founded in Columbus, Ohio in 1890,[1] and by 1920 the UMWA had gained about 500,000 members. Then in the 1920s and part of 1930s the union lost members and influence as the new and initially unorganized coalfields in West Virginia and Kentucky were developed.[2] However, with the election and supports from President Roosevelt,  the union was able to organize most of the miners in the Appalachian coalfields including West Virginia and Kentucky and became the backbone of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor support in the 1936 presidential election with its 800,000 members.[3] Despite corrupt leadership in the 1960s, the union remained a powerful political force in the region until the 1970s, when the union began to weaken. Today, the UMWA only has 20,000 coal miner members nationally and not a single active UMWA miner in the entire state of Kentucky.[4]

Prior to its collapse, the UMWA partnered with the Democratic Party for decades, and dominated elections for Governor, the US Senate, and the US House in Appalachian states– especially in West Virginia, which elected only two congressional and presidential Republican candidates from 1960 to 2000. West Virginia also elected Democratic Senators every year from 1960,[5] and as late as 1992, Bill Clinton, in winning the White House in 1992, was successful in wooing Appalachian voters in Kentucky, West Virginia and Tennessee.[6]

2016 Presidential Election

Photo: Trump and Clinton had different views about the coal jobs in the 2016 Presidential Election. Trump promised to keep coal jobs while Clinton “declared a war on coal jobs” for environmental protection purpose. This difference has given Trump support from the Appalachian coal mining communities and helped him won the votes from the region. (Source: Gage Skidmore)

Only twenty four years later, in 2016, the working class, including the coal miners, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump who won by overwhelming margins in Central Appalachia.

In 2016, Trump secured victory by winning 7 out of 13 battleground states that Obama had won in 2008, 2012 or in both campaigns. Trump also won Pennsylvania which had not voted for a Republican since 1988, and Wisconsin which had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1984. In West Virginia, Trump won 489,371 popular votes (68.6%) compared to Clinton’s 188,794 votes (26.5%), giving him his largest margin of victory in any state in the entire country.[7] McDowell County, WV, the poorest coal county in West Virginia, was solidly a Trump county where 74.7% of the votes in McDowell went to Trump with only 23.1% for Clinton.

While Clinton won the state of Virginia by 5%, it was a different story in the coal counties in the southwestern part of the state – in Buchanan County, 81% of the votes went to Trump.[8]  Similarly, Trump won the state of Kentucky by almost 30% (62.5% to 32.7%), and in Appalachian counties, such as Elliott County, 70% of the votes went to Trump, compared to 26% to Clinton.[9]

Photo: A treemap of the US Presidential election in West Virginia. Trump has won every West Virginia county in the 2016 Presidential election. (Source: Ali Zifan)

In West Virginia, at the state level, the new Governor of West Virginia, while a Democrat, is a conservative coal operator (Jim Justice). Both houses of the West Virginia state legislation are Republican. At the federal legislative level, in the Senate West Virginia has one conservative Democrat (Joe Manchin) and one Republican (Shelley Moore Capito) while all three seats in the US House of Representatives are occupied by Republicans (Evan Jenkins, David McKinley, and Alex Mooney).[10] Until 2015, for over half a century, West Virginia only elected Democratic Senators, and in the US House, Democrats occupied the majority of House seats until 2011.[11] For example, Democrat Nick Rahall, from southern West Virginia, served 19 terms (1977 to 2015) as a US House Representative from West Virginia. In 2014, while running against Republican Evan Jenkins, the Rahall campaign outspent the Jenkins campaign in the election by a two-to-one ratio yet was still defeated with Jenkins getting 55.3% of the vote,[12]  even though Democratic politicians in West Virginia are typically more conservative than the national party, especially on social issues such as affirmative action, same sex marriage, gun control and abortion.

The election of Jim Justice in West Virginia in a state which overwhelmingly rejected other Democrats, is illustrative of the type of Democrat who can still win state wide election in West Virginia. Jim Justice is the richest man in West Virginia and was elected with 49 percent of the vote while the state went red in both houses of the state legislature and in the presidential election.[13] [14] Justice, a Raleigh County, WV native inherited his family’s agriculture and coal business at a young age and now owns over 50 companies with a net worth of approximately $1.6 billion.[15]

Justice has been a coal baron before he became a Democrat. He inherited the coal business from his father in 1990s and built it into Bluestone Coal Corp, one of the biggest private coal mining company in the Eastern US. In 2009, Justice told Bluestone for $568 million to Russians only to buy it back for $5 million after the coal industry slumped.[16]

In 2009, Justice bought The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and immediately brought back all 650 laid-off employees and added vacation and health benefits to their contracts and offered a 10 percent raise if the hotel regained its fifth star. Since then, Justice doubled the number of jobs at the resort and built a casino. He also convinced the PGA Tour to hold an annual tournament and reached an agreement with the New Orleans Saints to hold training camp there from 2014 to 2016.[17]

In June 2016, just after he won the Democratic gubernatorial nomination and two weeks before the Greenbrier Classic PGA tournament, West Virginia witnessed a disastrous 1,000-year flooding event which killed 23 people including 15 in Greenbrier county, and hundreds of homes were destroyed. In response, Justice canceled the PGA event, shut down his campaign, and opened the Greenbrier Resort free of charge to accommodate 200 locals who lost their houses.[18]

On the surface, Justice had many political flaws, and Politico described the gubernatorial election as “America’s weirdest election” not only because of Justice’s political affiliation but also for his various political weaknesses.[19]

In 2014, NPR reported that Justice owed nearly $2 million in unpaid government fines or taxes. In 2015, Justice reportedly owed $3.9 million property taxes in West Virginia and in 2016 Justice’s mines missed reclamation deadlines and his company owed nearly $2 million in delinquent property taxes in Kentucky plus another 850,000 in unpaid taxes in southwest Virginia.[20] Weeks before the election, NPR reported that Justice owed a total of $15 million in taxes and fines and was the nation’s top mine safety delinquent.[21] In addition to unpaid bills, Justice also practiced the controversial method of mining known as mountain top removal which has devastating and lasting environmental impacts.[22] In response to the accusation of unpaid fines and taxes, Justice explained that economics have gotten very tough for the coal industry and he had kept his mines open rather than just declaring bankruptcy, in an attempt to spare miners’ jobs, and promised to pay the bills as he could.[23] Since Justice bought Bluestone back, he re-opened several mines and brought back over 200 coal miners to work.

Despite these disadvantages and his Democratic political affiliation, both Justice himself and his campaign issues were very similar to that of Trump. Justice was seen as a rich “outsider” and a first time candidate for office. He promised to shake up the establishment and restore prosperity by creating more jobs, much as Trump promised.[24]

Justice was a very conservative Democrat and had been registered as a Republican until the Democratic party recruited him in February, 2015. Instead of supporting Democratic Presidential Candidate Hilary Clinton as did other Democratic candidates in other states, Justice distanced himself from Clinton and said that he would not vote for Clinton and would bring back coal jobs.[25] Justice was endorsed by the United Mine Workers.[26]

In response to West Virginia’s weak economy and budget crisis, Justice represented during his campaign that he would not raise taxes or cut government programs. Rather, Justice would become the state’s “marketer in chief” who would create more jobs in farming, tourism, and wood manufacturing with his business acumen. In his victory speech, Justice said “I am an absolute believer that we don’t have to divide business and labor.”[27]

Photo: A treemap of the United States presidential election in Kentucky, 2016, breakdown by counties based on their population. (Source: Ali Zifan)

In Kentucky, a Republican Tea Party adherent, Matt Bevin, was elected to succeed a moderate Democrat, Steve Beshear, who had served as Governor for 8 years. Today, Kentucky has two Republican Senators, and 5 of state’s 6 seats in the US House. The Republicans have occupied both seats in the US Senate since 1999 and have held a majority of seats in the US House since 1995.[28]

Why did such a massive shift in the political landscape occur? The answer most often advanced is that angry working class whites had seen their livelihoods destroyed by technology, global trade, and the vagaries of the coal industry, [29] and the 2016 election reflected a deep rebellion among white working class voters in Appalachia and elsewhere. To support this thesis, experts note that today, there are more whites in deep poverty in this country than any other group, with some 4.2 million white children living in “extreme poverty neighborhoods.” Working-class whites are also the most pessimistic of American subgroups with 42 percent say they are doing worse than their parents – in other words, they’re living the opposite of the American dream, according the Pew Economic Mobility Project.

In addition to the lack of jobs and a decent income, there appear to be deep seated cultural factors. Republicans have skillfully played upon these cultural issues – charging Democrats with coddling “welfare queens,” being soft on black crime “Willie Horton”, and giving jobs to less-qualified blacks over more-qualified whites (the battle over affirmative action). Cultural differences also arise with immigrants and issues related to Mexico and Muslims. White working class voters don’t trust Democrats to be as “tough” on these issues as Republican.[30]

Many see the working class as voting against their own economic interests since it is the Democrats and not the Republicans that favor a higher minimum wage, low cost medical care, safety regulation for the workplace, job retraining and protection of union rights. But the white working class does not appear to want what the Democratic Party represents and as a result in 2016 consistently voted for big business, pro-Wall Street Republicans as long as the candidate opposed immigration, was strong on terrorism, pro-gun, pro-life, and pro-Christian.[31]

However, there is little question that the most important single issue in coal country during the 2016 election was jobs, or more accurately, the lack of jobs. During Obama’s tenure, in West Virginia alone, 12,000 coal industry jobs were lost.[32] Furthermore, Obama and Clinton’s campaigns in promoting environmental goals such as climate change (war on coal) alienated many working class whites, creating the view of many that they work instead of bread and butter working class issues, “a forgotten people”[33] opening the way for Republicans and Trump to promise to bring the coal industry back to life as their most important task.

According to Trump’s 100-day action plan to Make America Great Again, he will eliminate moratorium on federal coal land leasing,[34] focus on “clean coal” as a potential job creator, which will heavily rely on the development of the carbon capture and storage technology. None of these steps, however is likely to make coal mining even remotely competitive both to natural gas (and later renewable energy).

Whatever the ultimate impact of the Trump plan may be, Trump raised miners’ hopes to revive employment in the coal industry. Bill Raney, the president of the West Virginia Coal Association, was thrilled about Trump’s energy plan. “Just a positive attitude in the White House is enormously important,” he said, and “some plants can get back on line” after Trump dismantles Obama’s Clean Power Plan.[35] David McCauley, the mayor of Buckhannon, WV, told Washington Post that “Trump was just what people here have always been – skeptical of government, almost libertarian. He’s West Virginia pipe dream: He’s going to undo the damage to the coal industry and bring back the jobs, and all of our kids down there in North Carolina are going to come home.”[36]

The massive shift of the white working class to Trump, and the huge margins of victory he enjoyed in central Appalachia came as a major surprise to the American polling system as almost all polls predicted very different results. Indeed, the 2016 Presidential Election marked a major failure for pollsters who consistently underestimated the support for Republican candidates and particularly Trump. Final polls predicted Clinton would win with 302 electoral votes while Trump won with 304 electoral votes.[37] Many pollsters and strategists believe that rural white voters, particularly those without college degrees, eluded the party’s polling altogether – and their absence from poll results may have been both a cause and a symptom of Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton in several states.[38]

Nationally speaking, the poll predicted Clinton to win with a 3-point lead in popular vote which was close to the actual 2-percent popular vote lead.[39] However, it was the state by state polling that got the electing prediction disastrously wrong. For example, in Wisconsin, the final poll predicted Clinton would win with a 7-point lead yet Trump won with a 0.7-point advantage, in Ohio, where poll predicted Clinton to win  by 1-point y Trump won Ohio by 8 points. In Michigan, which went red for the first time in 28 years, the final poll showed Clinton would win with a 4-point margin but Trump took the state by 0.3 percent.[40]

Similar to Trump’s victory, the 2015 Governor’s election in Kentucky also showed reflect the polling blind spot – Democrat Jack Conway had a 3-point lead in the final RealClearPolitics average but Republican Matt Bevin won by a 9-point margin. “The folks who would talk to a stranger about politics just aren’t representative of people who wouldn’t.” said John Hagner, a partner at Clarity Campaign Labs. [41] In both elections, pollsters observed the signs of “social-desirability bias” – the idea that voters won’t admit for whom they intend to vote because they think others will look unfavorably on their choice – a “shy Trump voter” phenomenon.

Furthermore, pollsters pointed out the difficulty in reaching voters from rural areas that have lower mobile phone penetration rate. They also believed that rural voters might choose not to participate in the surveys because they dislike the establishment. Another possible reason could be that Trump badly beat Clinton among white voters without a college degree while the two ran neck-and-neck among white voters with a degree. For example, while 88 percent of Kentucky’s population is white, less than a quarter of the working age population have a college degree. “I think it’s very plausible that for years pollsters have been over-representing educated voters.” Said Nick Gourevitch, a partner at Global Strategy Group.[42]