GOP gains majority in Raleigh, Greenbrier

(Brad Davis/The Register-Herald) From left, Raleigh County Assessor candidate Linda Sumner, House of Delegates 35th district candidate Lynne Arvon and her daughter Kendra check results as they come in at Raleigh County GOP Headquarters on General Election night in 2016.

In 2000, Raleigh County Assessor Linda Sumner was a high school teacher in Beckley.

She had concerns about West Virginia's economy, and she found an outlet in political organizing.

"I worked on (Republican governor) Cecil Underwood's campaign, when he was running," Sumner recalled on Tuesday. "Then, I worked on President (George W.) Bush's campaign."

Sumner attended Bush's 2001 inauguration in Washington, D.C. Standing in the Rotunda, she felt overwhelmed, she recalled on Monday.

"I remember standing in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and I said, 'This would be such an awesome job, a huge responsibility,'" she said. "I just couldn't imagine doing that."

Since the Great Depression, West Virginia had been a reliably Democratic state. Raleigh County was a Democratic county. As Sumner remembered it, there was no real choice in 2000. To win in West Virginia, a candidate had to have "D" designation in front of her name.

In August, the Republican party had more registered voters, 19,619, in Raleigh County than the Democratic party, 19,281, with no-party voters making up 13,487 and 582 registering as independent.

In 2002, Sumner and former state senator Russ Weeks were the first Republican candidates in Raleigh County in recent history to defeat Democratic incumbents.

In 2001, Sumner said, people were "just ready for a change."

Joe Long, then-chairman of the Raleigh Republican Party, was on a mission to get Republicans in the West Virginia Legislature. Long had approached Sumner with the idea of running in the 2002 race for House of Delegates in District 27, which included Raleigh and Summers counties.

Five Democrats were running for the seat, and Long wanted a full ticket of Republicans, too. Sumner agreed to run in the five-way Republican primary, which she ultimately won.

"I was very hesitant," she recalled of her decision to run for office. "In fact, I think it was last-minute, I decided to go ahead and run because we wanted a full slate.

"We were trying to build up the Republican Party."

Meanwhile, Long and other Republican organizers in Raleigh, like Stan Norman, were also supporting Russ Weeks, a first-time candidate out of Raleigh County, for the 9th Senatorial District.

Weeks on Tuesday expressed strong feelings about the issue of abortion, which is why he chose to run for office in 2002. He believed Democratic lawmakers who said they were "pro-life" in the early 2000s were not taking measures to stop legal abortion in the state, which Weeks opposes.

"Once in office, many of those legislators who claimed to be so very pro-life would vote for poorly written pro-life legislation, knowing that the bill would never pass Constitutional muster, once signed by the governor," recalled Weeks. "That allowed those legislators to claim they voted pro-life while they never publicly voiced any concern that the bill was written under lawyers' supervision to fail in court."

Election night on Nov. 5, 2002, held few surprises on the national front. Democratic Sen. Jay Rockefeller won re-election to a fourth term, besting Republican challenger Jay Wolfe, who had been backed by President Bush and the National Rifle Association.

But in Raleigh County, things were different.

Sumner won against Warren McGraw, a Democratic candidate, to claim a seat in the 10-way, five-position general election, along with Democratic incumbents Virginia Mahan, Bob Kiss, Ron Thompson and the late Sally Susman.

"It was an electrifying night," Sumner, on Tuesday, recalled her 2002 victory.  "I had worked really, really hard, but when it's your first time out, and it's never happened in your lifetime, you have your reservations.

"And, of course, the way it turned out, Russ Weeks took the Senate seat, and I took the House seat."

Weeks defeated Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooton, a Democrat.

"When the determination was made that I had won, I was amazed and in awe," Weeks recalled the night of Nov. 6, 2002. "I was so humbled and grateful for the confidence placed in me by the good folks in the 9th Senatorial District.

"I was hopeful that I would be able to serve my fellow citizens well, and I remember feeling so much gratitude to the good Lord for helping me have such an amazing opportunity."

He added he had had some fears about being able to quickly learn the job.

"I knew long ago that the 75 years of total control by the leadership of the West Virginia (Democratic) party did not reflect the values that most Raleigh County voters hold dear," said Weeks. "I firmly believed that if Raleigh County voters were consistently given a choice from both parties, as our Republic form of government requires, to maintain a balance of power, that many Raleigh County voters would change their registration to Republican.

"I thank the good Lord that day has come."

The success of the Republican Party in registering voters is not just limited to Raleigh County. Neighboring Greenbrier County also had more registered Republicans, 8,533, than Democratic voters, 8,422, with 5,152 "no party" voters and 878 independents, Greenbrier Election Clerk Jason Morgan reported recently.

"We really started seeing a change last spring, when the Kavanaugh hearing happened," said Morgan, who has been in his current job for three years. "People would just come in, all the time, with different reasons why they're switching, but last spring is when we really started to notice the trend." 

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh was appointed by President Donald Trump to the Supreme Court. In September 2018, during a Senate Judiciary hearing on Kavanaugh's appointment, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a college professor, testified that Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her in Bethesda, Maryland, when the two were teenagers.

On Monday, Sumner reflected back to the beginning of the Republican movement in Raleigh County.   

"I just think people were expecting, maybe, something different to happen," she said.

Support of coal, which the Republicans upheld, was a "very large part," she said, but a desire for overall change played a major role.

"Some of their ideas were starting to change," she said. "People were becoming more involved in politics than they were before.

"It was, basically, for a very long time, the first time, really, we had a two-party system," she said of the 2002 election.

The red streak continued in the state. In 2006, Don Blankenship — CEO of Massey Energy, who spent time in a federal prison for misdemeanor conspiracy charges in the deaths of 29 of his employees at Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010 — was appealing a lower court decision that ordered him to pay $50 million to Harman Coal Co., owned by Raleigh County businessman Hugh Caperton.

Blankenship sank $2 million into a television campaign funded by a group called For the Sake of the Kids. The ads portrayed West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Warren McGraw, a Democrat who had worked for the civil rights movement in the South during desegregation, as giving soft sentences to sex offenders. Largely due to Blankenship's efforts, Republican judge Brett Benjamin was elected to the WVSCOA for a 12-year term, becoming the first Republican in about 80 years to serve on the state's high court. 

Benjamin opted not to recuse himself from Caperton vs. Massey. He cast the vote two times to overturn Caperton's award. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the West Virginia judges' decision and told them to hear the case without Benjamin's participation.

Blankenship, who ran unsuccessfully against Gov. Jim Justice during the GOP primary in 2018, told The Register-Herald in 2018 that he had funded the campaign against McGraw because he believed it was too easy to file a workers' compensation claim, and McGraw tended to rule in favor of employees' on workers' comp cases.

In the 2016 election, Republican President Donald Trump easily won West Virginia, with 69 percent of the vote.

Sumner said West Virginia is a "red state," but, unlike the days when blue dominated the Mountain State, she believes that there is still a choice for voters in Raleigh County.

"In Raleigh County, anybody can run a good campaign, regardless," she said. "I think anyone can run a good campaign here because we see changes.

"It doesn't stay the same," she said. "Anybody of any party, if you work hard, and you get your ideas out there, it may take you a time or two, it may not.

"You don't know ... but the biggest thing was, people became more informed.

"Once you have a two-party system, you have other people putting forth ideas," she said. "I think people just got energized and got excited, and we would have debates, and everybody would put forth different ideas."

Issues have changed from 2002, but the economy remains at the top of the list, according to Sumner.

"West Virginia on the whole, number one, as it is in most states, it's going to be the economy," she added. "We're all having trouble, especially since the Covid-19 has hurt a lot of people.

"Economy is going to be number one.

"How we respond to the virus, that's going to be an issue."

With Republicans proving that flipping a long-ruling political party can be done in the coalfields of southern West Virginia — the place that birthed the modern labor movement — the party switch could serve as both a challenge and a reminder to each party that West Virginia voters are, ultimately, in control.

"Whoever is going to be elected to an office, you need to take care of business," Sumner advised. "If you don't do what you're elected to do, I think you'll see a change-over.

"People just want to make sure they live in a place where they can raise a family, have a job."

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