A change has come to Greenbrier County. For the first time in recorded memory, more voters are registered as Republicans than as Democrats. But what does this change really mean for Greenbrier residents? Is this a seismic-shift in core values, or the natural progression of slowly-evolving political ideologies?
News of the shift began to circulate in the latter half of August, as the gap between Republicans and Democrats narrowed.
On August 21, the Democratic majority had decreased to 84 registered voters. By August 25, the gap had closed to just 13. And then, two days later, the change officially happened. Through a post on social media, the Greenbrier County Republican Club announced: “We did it! For the first time in Greenbrier County history, the Republican Party now leads in voter registration as of August 27, 2020!”
On Monday, August 31, the Greenbrier County Clerk’s office reported that there were 8,516 residents registered as Republicans, compared to the 8,428 registered Democrats. When added to those individuals registered as either Independent or No Party Preference, the total number of registered voters county-wide was 22,975. Republicans accounted for 37.07%, and Democrats accounted for 36.68%, making the Republican majority less than 0.4%. As of Thursday, September 10, the Republican majority had increased to 1.05%.
So why did this change happen, and what do these shifting affiliations represent?
Paul Detch, chairman of the Greenbrier County Democratic Executive Committee said that he believes Greenbrier has “always been a conservative county in many respects.”
Detch went on to say that “a lot of people don’t realize the differences between the two parties. In West Virginia, they’ve (the parties) been blended somewhat.”
Detch also felt that the shifting majority is less significant than his Republican counterparts portray, and offered a reminder that Democrats took every open position during the 2018 elections. However, Detch did concede that the flip to red is an organic “slow-burn” which has been developing for several years, something he attributes primarily to the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.
“West Virginia is a Trump state, and people don’t want to live in a Trump state. So we’re losing our young people. They’re moving away to find jobs. The state has a very large elderly population, who are mostly conservative. And they think as conservatives do,” Detch said.
Ben Anderson, chairman of the Greenbrier County Republican Executive Committee, felt differently on why he believed the change happened.
“Number one, it is because of the general allegiance to Donald Trump. His values are more aligned with the new Republican Party. And the values of Greenbrier County don’t align with the Democratic narrative of Bernie Sanders socialism.”
Anderson also felt differently about the impact younger residents are having on county politics, citing a group known as the Greenbrier Young Conservatives United as being integral in making the majority-switch happen.
“This is a group of 30 to 35 high school students who feel passionate about protecting our conservative values, and the tenets of the Republican Party,” Anderson said. “Their only hope to stay in W.Va. and not have to leave to find jobs is electing Republicans, and they are waking up in droves.”
Anderson did not agree that the change is a “slow-burn,” but rather referred to it as a “mass exodus from the Democratic Party.”
The answer as to why this change happened can be found, as is so often the case, in the numbers. In recent weeks, Anderson has made several references to a 2016 Democratic majority of over 4,000 voters. However, the numbers don’t seem to support his claim. According to the Greenbrier County Clerk’s office, in 2016 there were 7,444 residents registered as Democrats and 6,670 registered as Republicans. This is a difference of 744 voters, and a far cry from “over 4,000.” It also seems to support Detch’s assertion of a “slow-burn.”
Going back to 2014 adds even more credibility to the “slow-burn” theory. County records showed Democrats to be in the majority by 1,087 voters. What is perhaps more compelling is what’s reflected in the primary election numbers. In order to participate in a primary election, a resident must be a registered member of that particular party. For example, if you wanted to vote for Jim Justice to be nominated for re-election as the Governor of West Virginia, you would have needed to register as Republican.
In 2014, which was not an election year for either governor or president, an average of 3,003 Democrats voted in each of their primary-elections. For Greenbrier County Republicans that year, the average was 1,014.
Jump ahead to 2016, which was an election year for both Gov. and Pres. Democrats averaged 4,571 votes per primary election, and Republicans averaged 2,988. As a candidate for the Democratic nomination, Gov. Justice received 3,159 of the 5,909 total primary votes in that election. Republicans cast a total of 3,147 primary votes for their respective gubernatorial candidates. Republicans also cast 3,960 primary votes for President Trump. Now in 2020, Republicans cast 4,683 total primary votes for Governor, with 3,479 going for Gov. Justice. Of the 4,636 Republican Presidential primary-votes, 4,448 went to Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, only 4,001 total primary votes were cast for governor.
These numbers reflect a gradual shift going back to at least 2014, and show the President to be no more or less popular among county-residents than he was four years ago. The only real fluctuation seems to have occurred when Gov. Justice changed his own political affiliation from Democrat to Republican. The numbers would seem to indicate he took a large percentage of voters with him.
Anderson referenced the West Virginia Secretary of State’s website as his source for voter-registration statistics. And in this, Anderson is correct. According to records readily available on the WVSOS website, Greenbrier had a total of 12,188 residents registered as Democrats, and 7,951 registered as Republicans at the conclusion of 2016.
However, in 2018, Greenbrier County performed a “purging of voters.” According to the Greenbrier County Clerk’s office, over 4,000 voters that had moved, become deceased, or missed more than two consecutive federal elections were removed from the SVRS system, which is the same state-elections system used by all counties in W.Va. By March 2019, the inaccurate numbers reflected on the Secretary of State’s website had been updated to match county records.
The new numbers post-“purge” do not reflect a mass exodus, but they still have considerable significance. Again, as Paul Detch pointed out, West Virginia is a predominantly conservative state. Claiming a Republican majority in a historically Democratic stronghold deserves mentioning. As Ben Anderson put it, area Republicans are “flying high because we’re on a roll right now.”
Anderson went on to say that “if Jim Justice hadn’t followed his heart and changed parties, he probably would not be re-elected in 2020.” Gov. Justice was elected as a Democrat in 2016. While appearing at a rally with President Donald Trump on August 3, 2017, Justice announced he had rejoined the Republican party. Of West Virginia’s 36 governors, Justice is only the second to change party-affiliation while in office. The first governor to do so was John Jacob in 1872. Justice had been a registered member of the Republican party up until February 2015, when he changed his affiliation ahead of seeking the Democratic nomination. Anderson believes that Gov. Justice was elected in 2016 on the strength of Republican voters, as he was one of the few Democrats who came out in support of Donald Trump.
However once again, the numbers do not seem to support the claim. Greenbrier County cast 8,589 votes for Gov. Justice in the 2016 general election, while Republican nominee Bill Cole received 4,361 votes. Of the 18,640 registered county voters that year, 14,182 of them voted in the gubernatorial election. Registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans by only 774 voters. While a nominal amount of Republicans most likely did cast their votes for Gov. Justice, his election was due in much larger part to strong voter turnout on the Democratic side, poor voter turn out on the Republican side, and a larger percentage of Independent/No Party Preference voters choosing Justice over Cole or the three minor party candidates. When the numbers are followed, they continually form a straight line directly back to Gov. Justice as the only significant fluctuation.
General elections in Greenbrier County, as well as across the country, are scheduled to be held on Tuesday, November 3. The results of those elections will be the true litmus test of the impact this change has had on Greenbrier County.