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Reversing abortion ban tall task for West Virginia Democrats

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After West Virginia's Republican supermajority Legislature approved an abortion ban , the new leaders of the state Democratic Party urged voters to take their anger to the polls.
West Virginia Democratic Del. Mike Pushkin stands outside the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. on April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — After West Virginia's Republican supermajority Legislature approved an abortion ban, the new leaders of the state Democratic Party urged voters to take their anger to the polls. But they didn't match that push with a full slate of candidates.

With far fewer Democrats than Republicans in legislative races, the likelihood of winning enough seats to reverse the ban is small in this year's election. Even where Democrats are running, the challenge is formidable as registered Republicans outnumber them in 35 of the state's 55 counties.

With Republicans holding advantages of 23-11 in the state Senate and 78-22 in the state House, one-fourth of the races on the November ballot have no Democratic candidates. That’s much higher than the 15% of ballot spots that Democrats did not fill in the 2020 general election.

Filing deadlines for legislative races passed long before the abortion ban was enacted. The Democratic Party, which has been in freefall in the state for years, wasn't able to recruit enough candidates to stay competitive even if public opinion shifted in its favor.

That doesn't mean Democrats won't try.

“We will organize, strategize, and mobilize," Delegate Danielle Walker, the state party's vice chairwoman, wrote on Twitter after the legislation passed Sept. 13. "A complete abortion ban in West V is unacceptable. Register to vote. Engage. Donate. Volunteer.”

The registration deadline is Oct. 18 for the Nov. 8 election, but bolstering voter rolls alone may not matter. The new voters need candidates to support.

“I think the Democrats are at a crossroads," said Robert Rupp, a retired political history professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College. "Right now, they're in a very weak position. And the question is, what is going to be their strategy to win back the state to like the times where they were once dominant?”

Democrats, who long ruled the state on the strength of their strong union presence and a clear identity as the party of working people, complained the 2020 redistricting further diluted their influence even more. Along with the elimination of multiple-member districts in the House of Delegates, that meant the GOP-dominated Eastern Panhandle gained two House seats for a total of 12. No Democrats are running in six of those races.

Traditional Democratic strongholds such as Charleston, Fairmont and Morgantown and the Northern Panhandle were divided to the GOP's advantage.

“The Republican leadership in the legislature appears to have been quite effective at designing a new set of election maps for the voters that will at least maintain their overwhelming super majorities,” said Scott Crichlow, an associate political science professor at West Virginia University.

It wasn’t always this way. Democrats held a supermajority in both legislative chambers as recently as 2008. But in the 2014 general election, voters in the coal-dependent state steered their disgust toward Democratic President Barack Obama’s efforts to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants. Obama was so unpopular in West Virginia that a federal inmate in Texas received 41% of the vote in the state's 2012 Democratic presidential primary.

In 2014, Republicans took control of both legislative chambers.

Meanwhile, the number of registered Democratic voters in West Virginia has tumbled to historic lows.

Since January alone their numbers are down about 11,000 and comprise 33% of all voters, according to the secretary of state’s office. In 2014, registered Democrats fell below 50% for the first time since 1932. The number of registered Republicans surpassed Democrats in February 2021 and now is at 39%.

Independents now comprise 23% of all state voters.

Delegate Mike Pushkin knew what he was up against when he was elected state Democratic Party chairman in June.

“We’ve got to get our message out and work hand-in-hand with our candidates up and down the ballot," he said in his acceptance speech, “to get that message out to the people: We’re the party of West Virginia values.”

While getting enough people to hear that message won't be easy, abortion rights organizers don't have much choice.

“I love West Virginia and our people way too much to give up without one hell of a fight," Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the reproductive health rights group West Virginia Free, wrote on Facebook. "And that means taking democracy seriously and ensuring accountability.”

Another critical challenge for Democrats in the state lies ahead: Sen. Joe Manchin, the only Democrat to hold any statewide office and a supporter of constitutional protections for abortion, is up for re-election in 2024.

“The most prominent Democrat in the state often seems to run away from the word Democrat," Crichlow said. “And without other high-profile politicians in the state clearly espousing what the party stands for, well, that’s not helpful for voters.”

Democrats have voiced concerns about other critical issues in recent years, but they are mostly playing defense — supporting LGBTQ protections, opposing the use of state funds for private education, and fighting restrictions on the way public school teachers can talk about race.

But abortion tops them all.

Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed the ban on Sept. 16, making West Virginia the second state to enact a law prohibiting the procedure since the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling overturning its constitutional protection. Other states had passed various “trigger" laws before the ruling to ban abortions. Clinics in 15 states have stopped providing abortions.

In an editorial distributed this month by Senate Democrats, Sen. Mike Caputo of Marion County said the GOP ramrodded the bill through the Legislature and that “there's no way in hell I would compromise when it comes to the rights and freedom of women."

“I just hope the women of West Virginia, and the men who love them, will realize which legislators voted to take away their individual freedom to make personal health decisions when they go to the polls this November," he said.

In the short run, that may be a difficult path. In the longer-term, experts say the party needs a clearer sense of what it stands for if it wants to get back in the game.

“I think a lot of voters aren’t sure what a West Virginia Democrat is supposed to be," Crichlow said.

John Raby, The Associated Press