West Virginia Senate in Play Heading into Redistricting Year

Next year the West Virginia legislature will embark on redistricting the state’s 17 Senate districts, the House of Delegates 67 districts and what will be the state’s two Congressional districts — down from three.

Rod Snyder

That means control of the state legislature is more crucial this year than most. Whoever controls the legislature gets to redraw the state’s political lines to their advantage. 

The results of redistricting can be undemocratic. 

For example, Democrats complain that in 2012, Democratic congressional candidates won nearly a million and a half more votes than Republicans, yet Republicans won more seats in the U.S. House.

“This happened because Republican-majority legislatures drew hundreds of our nation’s congressional districts in 2011, and they used that power to tilt the playing field in favor of GOP candidates in grotesquely-gerrymandered districts like Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional seat,” the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) said in a posting.

Both the DLCC and the Repulican Legislative Campaign Committee (RLCC) have their eyes on the West Virginia Senate this year because the political consensus across the board is that the West Virginia Senate is in play.

Currently, Republicans control the Senate chamber — 20 to 14. 

If the Democrats gain a net three seats, there will be a 17 to 17 tie. If the Democrats gain a net four seats, they will gain control of the upper chamber.

“Flipping the Senate is not out of the realm of possibility,” says Rod Snyder, vice chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party. “There are probably five seats that are flippable and we would have to hold on to another five seats that are in play.”

Snyder is focused on Senate 16, where Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty (D) is in a tight race with the incumbent, Patricia Rucker (R). Snyder’s father, Herb Snyder, was the state Senator from the 16th for four terms. 

“The polling shows what we have known all along — it is an incredibly close race,” Snyder said. “It’s been a swing district for a long time. My dad held it for a long time. We have seen the 16th go back and forth for a long time.”

“John Unger, the other Senator from the 16th, is always running in the off years. The Jefferson County seat is always in the Presidential year. Patricia Rucker won a competitive close race in 2016 against Stephen Skinner (53 percent to 47 percent) in a Republican year. But Donald Trump’s numbers are suffering enough in West Virginia to make those headwinds less severe. (Trump defeated Clinton 70 percent to 30 percent in 2016 but is polling over Biden this year 60 percent to 40 percent.)”

“Dougherty is well respected and a strong candidate. He has been Sheriff here and with the Board of Education and is well known. Chances are he will run up the score in Jefferson County to win that seat but we know it is very close.”

Both sides have their eyes on at least four other contested races where Republicans could lose their seats to Democrats.

In Senate 2, a northern panhandle race, the Republican incumbent Mike Maroney (R) is being challenged by John Marshall High School government teacher Josh Gary. Maroney has been weakened by a developing prostitution scandal. WTRF reported that authorities charge that Maroney exchanged text messages to discuss prices and set up meetings with a woman who acknowledged being a prostitute. Maroney has pleaded not guilty.

In Senate 11, former State Senator Robert Lee Karnes (R) is facing off against Denise Campbell (D), a nurse and teacher. Karnes was upset in the Republican primary in 2018, losing to a pro-teacher Republican, Bill Hamilton. (The race made national news with The Intercept running the story under the headline — West Virginia Republican Said Teachers Won’t “Have Any Significant Effect” on Elections. Then They Voted Him Out.)

In Senate 1, also a northern panhandle seat and a swing district, Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld (R) is being challenged by House of Delegates member Randy Swartzmiller, a 20 year steelworker who now works at a petrochemical facility. 

“I’ve always fought for people,” Swartzmiller told the Wheeling News-Register. “I was handed layoff slips over the years … lost my health care and pension. I can relate to what people are going through. I’m a blue-collar fighter. I know how difficult it can be. I think that’s the biggest thing about me. I’m a people person.”

Another targeted race is Senate 10, where former House of Delegate member and former Sheriff and state Senator William Laird (D) is up against Jack Woodrum, president of the Summers County Commission. Laird is the son of former U.S. Senator William Laird III.

Woodrum has been dismissive of Laird’s candidacy. “I know Bill and worked with him when he was in the Senate,” Woodrum said earlier this year. “Everyone likes Bill. But his time has come and gone. He can’t be effective now. The district needs a Republican in Charleston.”

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