Monday, November 25, 2013

Second West Virginia Legislator Switches to Republican Party

Former US Senator Zell Miller complained in 2004 that he did not leave the Democratic Party.  It left him.

Two members of the West Virginia Legislature in the past year have come to the same conclusion.  Months ago, State Senator Evan Jenkins of Cabell County switched and announced a run for Congress.  Now, Delegate Ryan Ferns of Ohio County has done the same.

Ferns' home district in Ohio County resembles what Washington insiders call "Hillary country."  Wheeling has a long industrial history that has faded in the past twenty years.  Its blue collar roots have been supplemented by the luring of major retail outlets on the Interstate 70- corridor.

A "Hillary country" Democrat going red is a bad omen for Clinton in West Virginia. It shows that Obama's tenure has alienated a great deal of the blue collar bases depended upon by the Clintons.

Also interesting are the long standing ties between the Ferns family and Senator Joe Manchin.  Delegate Ferns' father and Manchin are reputed to be close friends.  Manchin family ties with Republicans are not unusual.  Governor Arch Moore worked closely with A. James Manchin, for instance.

This, however, invites scrutiny because of the increasingly isolated position in which Manchin finds himself.  In October, a Roll Call article described a centrist senator regretting leaving the Governor's Mansion.  Last week, he defied Senate leadership on a pivotal vote which removed minority filibuster power on nominees.

Manchin's discontent as a Senate Democrat seems clear.  His home state drifts toward the Republican Party by staying true to its traditional values. Manchin's few clashes with his base quickly, if temporarily, eroded his popularity.  Following the example of Ferns and Jenkins is one option.  Abandoning all party identification, like former Senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, is another.

Clearly Manchin, Ferns, Jenkins, and many of their traditionally Democratic brethren in West Virginia share the same dilemmas.  Switching to the GOP means breaking with generations of tradition in a state where party identification ranks a close third to family and denomination.  But how long can such ties remain when the national Democratic Party stokes hostility with values held dear by most West Virginians?

And what will this mean politically for the state in the next few years?

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