Sanders beat out Hillary Clinton during the West Virginia primary. In exit polling, however, a plurality of primary voters said the next president should pursue a less liberal policy agenda than former President Barack Obama, including 51 percent of people who voted for Sanders. It’s possible that many voters who pulled the lever for Sanders did so as a rejection of Clinton.
“I think that folks looking at the primary election results are drawing the wrong conclusion if they think that means that Joe Manchin is vulnerable to a challenge from his left,” Mike Plante, a West Virginia Democratic strategist said. “Bernie won, most of all, because he was not Hillary Clinton. He was the outsider, and he was anti-establishment.” Plante added: “West Virginia is not just a state leaning to the right. In actuality, it has become one of the reddest, red states.”
Some West Virginia liberals believe, however, that the Democratic Party could win back ground it has lost in the state if it unapologetically embraced a progressive-populist agenda, instead of fielding conservative Democrats, like Manchin.
“I believe Bernie Sanders’ agenda should be our party’s platform in West Virginia. It is the only democratic platform that has had success here,” said Chris Regan, the former vice chair for the West Virginia Democratic Party who endorsed Sanders during the primary. “The way I see it you lose voters on both sides of the spectrum with the Manchin strategy. You’re trying to appeal to conservative voters, but they can just go and vote for a Republican, and at the same time you alienate progressive liberal voters.”
Even if there is an opening for a populist economic message in West Virginia, however, that doesn’t necessarily mean any candidate who runs in a mold similar to Sanders will succeed.
While Swearengin may not have much of a political profile in the state, she appears to have something of a reputation, or at the very least an online presence, as an environmental activist.
One video uploaded to YouTube shows Swearengin asking, “Who’s going to clean up the mess when coal’s gone?” and saying: “Fracking is not acceptable either.” Her website states: “The question we face today is: What are we going to do when the coal is gone? And make no mistake it’s going. No one has given us an answer that doesn’t require the sacrifice of our health and our environment. I believe our future is in building a 21st-century, clean economy.”
The coal industry is indeed under threat from market forces, the most prominent of which is the cheap cost of natural gas. The coal industry’s decline, which Republicans have blamed on government regulations and a Democrat-waged “war on coal,” has lead to questions over what can be done to fill the economic void it has left behind.
That said, Democratic primary voters in the state won’t necessarily be receptive to a message that it’s time to move on from the industry. In 2016, polling in West Virginia’s second congressional district found that 65 percent of Democratic primary voters believed that “supporting coal jobs” should be a major priority, according to Plante, the West Virginia Democratic strategist.