It Has Grown More Conservative
In 2000, when Shelley Moore Capito beat Jim Humphries (and many do not remember what an underdog she was, outspent 3 to 1) the district had around 2/3 of its registered voters signed up as Democrats. Republicans trailed significantly and way fewer voters were independent. Capito then and now has never seen "moderate" as derogatory. Her style and charisma won over centrists who were not sold enough to join the Republican Party, but believed in her.
Capito's ascension to Congress came in the same year as West Virginia's favorite living president. George W. Bush also sold in West Virginia a moderate Middle American conservatism. His style, ridiculed by elitists elsewhere, endeared him to a state that enthusiastically supported his administration regardless.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party on the national level abandoned its roots. Jefferson founded it as the party of farmers. Jackson expanded it to include the poor country people. Later, it fully embraced the working man's cause. Since Bill Clinton, it neglected and even attacked all of these former rock solid constituencies. What Senator Zell Miller wrote about the South is true of all these groups, "if Southern voters think you don't understand them - or even worse, if they think you look down on them - they will never vote for you."
Al Gore attacked their livelihood. Massachusetts John Kerry never had a prayer. And Barack Obama's high church academic style that even Northeastern conservatives secretly admire looks condescending to West Virginians. Then the War on Coal, snide remarks about religious people and gun owners. Obama couldn't even carry his own primary in West Virginia by 2012. Romney won it by 22 points.
Somewhere between Bush and Obama, the district shifted far to the right. They still love Capito, but they have also embraced a candidate much more aggressively conservative across the board.
Add to that the exodus of conservatives from Maryland and Northern Virginia. Civil liberties in the Free State and the heavily regulated Fairfax Proprietary counties of the Old Dominion have decreased dramatically. Anti-gun attitudes, zoning laws, strict regulations all combined to push the population of Jefferson and Berkeley counties much higher. Many of these people, seeking a literally freer way of life, are very conservative.
The Eastern Panhandle Is Becoming a Republican Center of Power
West Virginians in other parts of the state are not used to hearing that people are moving here for opportunities and a better lifestyle. Bad economic conditions perpetuated by bad state level policies for decades bred a determination that better times looked more Utopian than possible. No one coming to the state could possibly move because the Mountain State offered something better.
The political success of Mooney and Attorney General Patrick Morrissey (who moved from out of state to Charles Town several years ago) illustrates a deeper trend. Maryland has lost business and residents to Jefferson, Berkeley, Hampshire, and Mineral counties. Hampshire also has attracted many who work and do business in Winchester, Virginia. Affluent private sector oriented families, such as those moving in, tend to be conservative and Republican. According to USA Today, Berkeley and Jefferson increased their populations by three to five percent between 2010 and 2012.
Kanawha's population declined to under 200,000 while Berkeley's is now near half that and ranked second, ahead of Cabell.
But It Was Not Just the Panhandle
Mooney won 15 of the 17 counties in the district. Ken Reed won his own county of Morgan; Charlotte Lane carried her home of Kanawha by a surprisingly small margin. The rest of the counties responded overwhelmingly to a message and a record of unabashed conservatism in gun ownership, pro life, and opposition to the EPA. A deluge of mailings, television, and radio ads reinforced Mooney's message. Certainly the broadcast advertisements helped to implant him in the minds of conservative Democrats and independents as well.
The Kanawha Valley bloc, that includes Putnam, gave the Charles Town resident much more support than what might have been predicted.
His opponents were unable to convince voters that residency mattered, regardless of region. Concerns about West Virginia's supposed hostility to "outsiders" is likely more stereotypical than true, voting in large numbers for Mooney, Morrissey, and Jay Rockefeller, among others would seem to confirm that.
Personal Wealth Also Did Not Matter
Two candidates tapped their own fortunes to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars to finance their campaigns. Mooney, without a personal fortune, still ended up with a more substantial campaign chest by first having to appeal to donors. This certainly undercuts the usual Democratic narrative of rich Republicans simply "buying elections" (as if one could simply spend money and guarantee a win.)
Was the Campaign All That Rough?
No one was accused of wanting to establish monarchy, put "dwellings in flames," or see "female chastity violated." Candidates never heard the accusation that they imported mistresses from Europe. All in all, the campaign developed in a way more spirited than nasty, more populist than personal. Certainly some issues got exaggerated, others spun, but even modern campaigns in different areas have gotten far worse and for a much longer period of time.
The West Virginia Second, however, had not seen a really tough primary fight in at least a generation. Leading up to election day, more people paid attention as they saw the fight take place on TV and radio, over their phones, and in their mailbox. Interestingly, the focus on this race did not inflate voter numbers beyond what had been predicted shortly before balloting.