In West Virginia, a trend toward populism, against ideology
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GRAFTON, W.Va. — It isn't always the big cosmopolitan cities or the most prosperous states that tell the story of what is happening in America; that is true not only in politics, but also in tradition, culture and conflict.

It was here in this Taylor County railroad town where Thornsberry Bailey Brown, in 1861, became the first Union soldier to die in battle in the Civil War; six years later, it was where the first Memorial Day parade was held, still the longest running one in the country. Mother's Day began here at the turn of the 20th century.

And the name of the 19-year-old Virginian who surveyed this town in 1751? George Washington.


Most people in the Beltway would struggle to find Taylor County on a map of West Virginia — despite the fact that portions of the state are considered part of suburban D.C. — yet what has happened in this state is not only a microcosm of the populism that is sweeping the country, it also underscores the devastating impact President Obama's progressivism has had on down-ballot seats across the country held and lost by Democrats since 2009.

Right under everyone's nose, this state has gone from deep blue from the bottom up to ruby red. While many elites cry racism, they are wrong; it is overreach, it is political correctness, it is disaffection with the direction of the country and the political party that swaddled most Mountaineers since birth.

And it is also the deep scars of a recession that has never healed here, unlike coastal enclaves.

When Obama took office, West Virginia Democrats held both U.S. Senate seats, two out of the three congressional seats, the governor's office and the majority of both state chambers.

By 2014 — the last midterm election cycle of his presidency — Democrats had lost the legislative majority for the first time in 80 years, all of the congressional seats, one of the two U.S. Senate seats and had a very close call in the governor's race two years earlier.

This year, the Republicans think the possibility to pick off that governor's seat is within their reach, aided in large part by two factors: disaffected Democrats who are at odds with progressive policies and the incredible popularity of Republican Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE among Democrats in the state.

Bill Cole, an owner of a car dealership and Republican president of the State Senate, faces Jim Justice (D), the state's richest man, only billionaire, one-time Republican, owner of the Greenbrier Resort and coal baron.

It's the biggest little race in the country that tells the story in one state why Trump's non-ideological run for the presidency worked in this election cycle.

It also marks a race that is not based on the ideologies of either party, but which candidate is going to actually get things done for the state.

It is a foregone conclusion that Trump will win this state on the presidential level; Democrats have not been able to win here since the party's hard left turn after President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBudowsky: 3 big dangers for Democrats The Hill's Morning Report - Pelosi remains firm despite new impeachment push Another VPOTUS tries for POTUS: What does history tell us? MORE in the 1990s. The governor's race is a different animal, though; it's been 16 years since the last Republican won the state's executive office and the Democrats don't plan on lying down for this race despite dramatic trends away from them.

In any other state, Justice would be a Republican: He is pro-coal, pro-energy and against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations that have contributed to the overall economic hurt in West Virginia. His campaign style of self-funding, blunt talk and bucking the party establishment resembles the Republican presumptive presidential nominee in tone, texture and lack of demand for ideological perfection.

Before entering politics in 2010, Cole owned a car dealership in his home state and in Kentucky. He began his political career in the House of Delegates for a six-month stint after the resignation of John Schott (R). Two years later, he won a State Senate seat and quickly rose to president of the Senate when the Republicans took the majority in 2014. Despite his lifetime outside of politics and his endorsement of Trump, Cole faces one big challenge for this seat: He is in government, his opponent is not — but that can be easily countered with Trump at the top of the ticket.

There are 12 governors' offices on the ballot across the country this November, with three Republicans and three Democrats seeking reelection. West Virginia is one of the six open seats that Republicans could turn from a Democratic hold (incumbent Democrat Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is term-limited from seeking a third term) to a GOP victory. Republicans believe that if they win here, they can hold it for a very long time and that will serve as a warning shot to U.S. Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Senate panel approves Interior nominee over objections from Democrats Labor head warns of 'frightening uptick' in black lung disease among miners MORE — a conservative Democrat up for reelection in 2018 — that they are coming for his seat, as well.

Grafton, like the rest of West Virginia, has a strong past. The last 50 years have hit this town and the whole state hard; the glass plant, pottery plants and railroad jobs are either gone or much reduced in number. The same is true for jobs in coal.

The populism against Washington sweeping this country is a trend that has been growing here for decades; it has no ideology but lot of frustration and a willingness to try something new, including detaching from the Democratic Party that has been the state's lifeline since President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal programs in the 1930s.

Not only should both political parties watch this race for where the country is going in terms of temperament and traditional political allegiance, but they should keep an eye on how important traditional progressivism and conservatism values work for either candidate. It could be that the one who promises the most progress and the less allegiance to party brand is the one who wins this cycle, a trend away from the wings of both parties and toward pragmatism.

Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. Contact her at