The state of West Virginia, John Denver famously said, is “almost heaven.” But purgatory is also just a step away from heaven, and that’s where Bernie Sanders finds himself after the Mountain State’s primary Tuesday.
The Vermont senator won big in West Virginia’s Democratic primary, defeating Hillary Clinton. That follows a similarly big win—an upset that defied polling—in Indiana last week. Although Clinton won the tiny Guam primary over the weekend, Sanders seems like the favorite to win the two remaining Democratic contests this month, in Kentucky and Oregon on May 17. Yet that winning streak won’t do anything to dislodge Clinton from her spot as prohibitive frontrunner. With her huge lead in delegates, Clinton is still on course to win the nomination, and Sanders remains unable to climb out of purgatory and into paradise—or at least the presidential nomination.
How did Sanders win on Tuesday, though? West Virginia was once a solid Democratic state, a hotbed of labor unionism that went for Democratic presidential candidates from 1932 on in all but the Republican landslide years of 1956, 1972, and 1984. The state was represented in the Senate by two grand old men of the party, Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller. But more recently, the state has trended Republican, for a variety of reasons: Party realignment around conservative issues has led socially conservative West Virginians toward the GOP; racial animus toward President Obama has hurt the local Democratic Party; and the combination of weaker unions and liberal environmental advocacy against coal has lost the Dems some blue-collar backing.
Sanders is not much like Robert Byrd—a former Klansman who became a moderate liberal—nor is he that much like Rockefeller, who was, well, a Rockefeller. But Sanders’s New Deal-flavored leftist populism still resonates with West Virginians. Like many states where Sanders has done well, the Democratic electorate is also overwhelmingly white. While Sanders has ratcheted up his discussions of race, it didn’t come naturally to him—he’s a class guy, really—and he doesn’t wield identity politics nearly as forcefully or as naturally as Hillary Clinton.
If Sanders went into the West Virginia contest with an edge, Clinton didn’t necessarily do much to help herself. She faced harsh blowback over comments she made back in March at a town hall: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business … and we’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations.” Clinton was trying to talk up her retraining plan, but she managed to step on her own message with unwise phrasing, and only the part about putting miners out of business stuck in West Virginia, where the industry remains a powerful force and icon, even as production and jobs have shrunk.
Demographics help explain why Sanders is expected to do well in the next two contests. Kentucky is another semi-Southern, rural, very white state where coal mining is important. Oregon, too, is heavily white and rural—while its biggest urban center, Portland, may favor Sanders for different reasons. “Last week we won a really big victory in Indiana, and tonight it appears we’ve won a big, big victory in West Virginia—and with your help, we’re going to win in Oregon next week,” Sanders told an enthusiastic crowd in Salem, Oregon.
This is no doubt a source of frustration for Clinton campaign, which sees the race as essentially over but can’t seem to close the deal quite yet—that should happen on June 7 in California, if not before and barring some earth-shaking development in the race. She has begun to change her rhetoric and approach, acting like a general-election candidate and trying to take on Donald Trump. Sanders, meanwhile, has toned down his own attacks on her, but he’s determined to stay in the race. For the time being, Sanders isn’t the only Democratic candidate stuck in limbo.
Speaking of Trump, he has put the Republican Party in its own sort of hell—or to paraphrase West Virginia’s state slogan, a situation that is wild, if not wonderful. Since his win in Indiana on May 3 and the exits of Senator Ted Cruz and Governor John Kasich, he is now the only candidate in the Republican race and the party’s presumptive (if not universally supported) nominee. Trump won handily in both West Virginia and in Nebraska, which held its primary Tuesday. (Democrats caucused in the Cornhusker State on March 5; Sanders won by a landslide there, too.) In an entertaining twist, Trump did something no career politician would do: He urged his West Virginia supporters not to get out and vote. “You don’t have to vote anymore, save your vote for the general election, forget this one, the primary’s done,” he said last week. Enough of them showed up to hand him the win, though.
Nebraska provided a small frisson of excitement, too. The state’s junior senator, Ben Sasse, has been one of the most outspoken critics of Trump, has refused to back him, and is often mentioned as a potential third-party candidate. Meanwhile, Senator Ted Cruz—who dropped out of the race after Trump beat him last week—flirted with reanimating his suspended campaign if he won Nebraska, which he admitted seemed unlikely. “We launched this campaign intending to win. The reason we suspended our campaign was that with the Indiana loss, I felt there was no path to victory,” Cruz told Glenn Beck on Tuesday. “If that changes, we will certainly respond accordingly.” But it didn’t change; Trump won Nebraska.
That means both the Democratic and Republican parties leave Tuesday’s contests in much the same way they arrived. Trump has nearly made it to the promised land, while Sanders, Clinton, and Republican elders still find themselves locked out of heaven.
—David A. Graham