It’s no hard task to imagine the rivalry between Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Paula Jean Swearengin playing out between both candidates’ grandfathers in Appalachia 100 years ago. The two women running for the US Senate in West Virginia come down on opposite sides of just about every issue, much as their fathers and grandfathers had before them.
Swearengin descends from two generations of coal miners, while Capito belongs to a five-generation dynasty of West Virginia politicians. To this day, the century-long tension between the extractive-industry barons of West Virginia and the workers toiling in their mines is still on display around the necks of Swearengin and her Republican opponent: Paula Jean favors the red bandanna made famous by militant “redneck” coal miners, while Capito never fails to appear at committee meetings in pearls.
The race pitting a coal miner’s daughter against a political matriarch mirrors the stark contradictions of a state where Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in every county in 2016 but which Trump took by an overwhelming 68 percent in the general election—the largest Trump vote share of any state. Despite the talk of political polarization that has flourished since 2016, the moderate politics of West Virginia’s Republican Senator Capito and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin are almost indistinguishable from each other, placing them both at odds with much of the electorate. As the state’s red hue deepens and Trump’s GOP drags Capito further to the right, those moderate politics are sure to change, one way or another.
A Capito victory would signal total Republican capture of a state where Republicans also hold the governor’s house, the auditor’s office, and the attorney general’s seat. Democrats have made large gains in the state House, but with total Republican command of top posts in state government, Democrats face mounting challenges. Ultimately, national Democrats’ total abandonment of the state—accelerated by Trump’s election—is what allowed Republicans to initiate their takeover in the first place.
With no plans for an economic stimulus to replace the dying coal industry, the national Democratic Party has written off West Virginia, declining to flex its financial muscle in support of progressive firebrands like Stephen Smith during his gubernatorial bid and failing to focus any serious money or organizing resources on rebuilding power in the state. Democrats’ refusal to support progressives in what was once a deep-blue union state ignores the 23 percent of voters registered as independents, as well as the fact that more West Virginian voters are still registered as Democrats than as Republicans. Richard Ojeda’s 2018 loss to Carol Miller for one of West Virginia’s three House seats served as a testament to the uphill battle that any Democrat, outsider or otherwise, faces running for office in the state.
Ojeda, a rabble-rousing former paratrooper running on a populist platform, rocketed into the spotlight after hitching his wagon to the statewide teachers strike. It wasn’t clear if Ojeda’s maverick personality always served to bolster the public’s confidence, and whether his Facebook rants enamored him to older voters or scared them away. But his idiosyncrasies as a candidate aside, his loss by an astounding 13 points to the Trump-endorsed Miller illustrated just how hard winning a blue seat in the state has become. West Virginia’s House congressional districts run from east to west, creating a three-way split that fractures pockets of blue support in the far northern and southwestern parts of the state. With those demographics diluted, the chance of unseating a Republican incumbent in the House is kept out of reach.
The strength of incumbency changes, though, when it comes to the Senate. A Republican hasn’t won…