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Howard's Commentary - Whither WV Dems?

The WV Democratic Party needs a complete overhaul.

After more shocking losses this year, there can't be any denials. Something isn't being done right.

Is it simply a rightward movement of the state? Perhaps.

Or is it a failure of the party to articulate and promote a clear vision of what Democrats are supposed to be? More likely I would suggest.

A decade ago, the party ruled the roost. Controlled the legislature, governor's' mansion, board of public works and Capital Hill delegation. Now--essentially none of those are under "D" dominance.

The party needs to:

  • Define a clear vision based on traditional principles of Democrats with full throated support for policies that benefit the working/middle class over big business
  • Articulate that vision fearlessly, aggressively and affirmatively. Stop apologizing.
  • Expand leadership to include progressive voices, younger voices, different voices. The old regime has been in control too long and has dragged its electoral clout to near nothing.
  • Recruit, train, and support candidates who believe in the vision that the party has defined.

First, the party needs to stand for something. It needs to return to affirming basic principles of Democrats; things like using the levers of government to benefit the working and middle class, not big business. Like protecting the rights of all individuals, not just those in power or the majority.

State Senator Jeff Kessler --one time Senate President and gubernatorial candidate--in a recent Charleston Gazette-Mail article said it's time for the party to stop being GOP "light"

Kessler said his party's message remains a light version of the Republican platform. He said he never saw state Democrats pushing back against Republican criticism of Obama's policies like the Affordable Care Act, which gave hundreds of thousands of West Virginians health insurance.

"Running the same playbook the same way is going to be the same disaster and losses," Kessler said. "If you are gonna get your butts beat, why not stand for something?" (Charleston Gazette-Mail 11/10/16)

No one can argue the GOP was effective in tying all "D" candidates to Obama, Clinton, and the so-called "War on Coal". But too many Democrat candidates tried to jump ON the GOP bandwagon instead of articulating a clear response. If I want a Republican policy, I'll vote for a real Republican not a GOP-wannabe.

The party also needs to broaden its leadership. It has been operating under the Joe Manchin mold for many years. Party leaders are from Manchin's team--like one of his closest advisors Larry Pucio and even the current chair Belinda Biafore.

Manchin is a truly successful politician--but he is a "party of one". The cross-the-aisle moderate Dem with some GOP leanings works for Manchin. It made him a really excellent governor. But there is no Manchin template. It works for him and him alone. When the party tries to emulate that in their other candidates, they lose.

Former party vice-chair, Chris Regan on my radio show recently said the party is too "Fairmont-centric", with leaders who "plug their ears (to their constituents) and tell WV Democrats what to want and what to do". Regan notes that he supported Bernie Sanders for President--as did WV Democrats in the primary--but party leaders wanted him to support Hillary Clinton instead. When he declined, he wasn't supported in his bid for reelection as party vice-chair.

Stephen Skinner was seen as a rising star in the House of Delegates. Gave up his seat to run for the Senate and lost. He says the party has become "personality-driven".

Skinner, who said he used his own campaign to develop a political field operation in the Eastern Panhandle, said that's not enough.

"The party is running like it's 1990," he said. "We have not reorganized into a modern infrastructure. It's clearly limping on. We have relied on the old model of how we run the party." (Charleston Gazette-Mail 11/10/16)

And above all, the state party needs to identify, recruit, and train new candidates who understand what it means to be a Democrat and --perhaps more importantly--to be able to convey that message clearly to his/her constituents. For years, we had the rock-solid Democrat team of folks like Robert C Byrd, Alan Mollohan, Nick Rahall, Jay Rockefeller. But we had built no bench and when those long-timers died, were defeated or retired, there was little in the wings ready to to step up.

Candidates like 3rd District Delegate Shawn Fluharty are the future for WV Dems. Fluharty is young, energetic, understands what he stands for and is able to articulate it clearly and forcefully. His floor speeches the past couple of years have been exactly what the party needs. They should be studied by the party and by potential candidates. Fluharty will be a major player in state politics. Others should be recruited and raised in that mold to come right behind him. And the party should provide tactical and financial support to those fresh voice candidates as well.

The WV GOP spent a decade building their bench, raising them up, honing their message, supporting them as a complete team. They had the patience to win elections year-by-year until they built a majority. They played a long game.

Mountain State Democrats need to do the same. We didn't end up in this tiny minority overnight and we won't regain the majority in a year or two.

None of this is to deny that there has been a rightward tilt to the state. In large part because the GOP has sucked the air out of the room. There is no reasoned voice of opposition. Much of the state media is conservative-owned and thus has a natural tendency to promulgate right-leaning policies.

Until we are able to get back into the game with a clear vision, articulated aggressively, we will remain on the back benches where, to a large extent, we have put ourselves.