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The Last Time West Virginia Mattered in an Election

By Ashley Faulkner ’18

West Virginia accounts for only five of the possible 538 electoral votes; two percent of the 270 electoral votes needed to clinch the United States Presidency. With these numbers, it is not a surprise that it seems that the state holds no weight in a national election. It begs the question why this tiny rural state should be a candidate’s main concern if his/her effort won’t bring back great return. West Virginia faces major economic issues and some of the highest poverty rates in the country. West Virginians are a people who feel ignored and left by the federal government. This hasn’t always been the case.

If you were to look for a presidential election where West Virginia made a significant impact on the outcome, you need not look further than the 1960 election of John F. Kennedy. The West Virginia primary became a heated competition between Democratic candidates, Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. While its size was irrelevant, the state held much symbolic power hea9ing into the Democratic National Convention.

Kennedy was young, wealthy and Catholic; voters in West Virginia were Protestants. Democratic leaders and citizens were concerned that Kennedy’s faith would affect how he would serve. His previous win in the Wisconsin primary had been credited to a Catholic voting block and he needed to prove that he could succeed regardless of his religion. According to one journalist, “If a Catholic was to make his stand on the religious question anywhere, West Virginia was the best possible proving ground.”

Humphrey had been expected to win the state 60-40, and Kennedy’s faith made him less popular as it got more attention. Kennedy had to go to the people if he were to make a comeback. He went to the coal miners and those most impoverished. Not only did he see their plights, but when he won the state’s primary and eventually the election, he did not forget them.

Kennedy’s first acts as President included an executive order for a food stamp program, in which the first recipient was an out-of-work coal miner and his 13 children. West Virginia received millions of dollars for public works programs, state parks, industry job growth and the creation of Interstate-79. Unemployment dropped by approximately 65,000 and $146 million was added to the economy through manufacturing. “West Virginia,” one commentator observer, “was never so remembered by Washington as it was during the next three years.”

The Catholic president continued his support of the state until his death, speaking at the state’s centennial he said, “The sun does not always shine in West Virginia, but the people always do”. While, Kennedy’s successor promoted social programs, the state didn’t receive the same attention.

This brings us back to our current election and a state facing the same problems 56 years later. According to TalkPoverty.org, West Virginia’s median incomes are below the national average and the poverty rate sits at 1 7 .9%. 10,000 coal mining jobs have been lost just since 2009, and the unemployment rate is the highest in the country. West Virginians, especially in the southern part of the state, feel at-odds with a government that doesn’t support coal—their livelihood.

One writer reflecting on the current situation observed that “Kennedy helped expose Americans to the scandal of Appalachian poverty, and he planted the seeds for his successor’s War on Poverty. Now, however, few outsiders seem to care … Politicians, who once trooped here like pilgrims, come less often.”

West Virginia doesn’t align with the typical party issues. As the party of unions and middle America, generations of West Virginians are registered as Democrats. Yet, they have voted for Republican presidential candidates since George W. Bush. This centers around Environmental Protection Agency regulations and factors that eliminate mining and other jobs in the state. If you look at the state Gubernatorial election, Jim Justice is a self-funded businessman running on the Democratic ticket, who promises to bring jobs and revitalize the coal industry. This sounds familiar to the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Trump’s greatest primary win came in at 91.5% in McDowell County, once the nation’s top coal producer. He is making promises to those who feel unheard. Trump says he will revitalize the coal industry and this gives them hope. West Virginia is the ideal representation for the angry voter who looks to Trump as an outsider and a business man.

The contrast with Hillary Clinton pushes even more support towards Trump. The Democratic candidates in West Virginia don’t want to align with her because of comments she has made against the coal industry. While she has apologized, she has referenced putting coal miners and coal companies out of business. In West Virginia, coal isn’t a source of energy but a source of survival. “She wants to shut down the coal industry—that’s gonna put me out of a job,” Ryan Barnette said in a CNN special.

Trump will win in West Virginia for his support of coal. The true question is, if elected, will he thank the state as generously as Kennedy did in 1960 or will the state be left in the same place it is now: forgotten-with no coal and few new industries in sight.