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In Coal Country, a Political Journey from Blue to Deep Red

political sign southwest Va
A campaign sign for Congressman Morgan Griffith outside of Grundy, Va. (Photo: Mason Adams/VCIJ)

By Mason Adams,  Virginia Center of Investigative Journalism

GRUNDY — The sharp divisions of one of the most polarizing presidential elections in modern history feel strangely removed from the heart of Virginia’s coal country.

The political divide still runs through social media and cable news — but yards, storefronts and bumpers indicate Southwest Virginia residents are largely unified in their preference for president. 

In fact, longtime Buchanan County resident Gerald Elkins claims that President Donald Trump has done more to unite residents here than any president in memory.

“They say Trump divides people, but I think he’s brought us together,” Elkins said. “Those Democrats and Republicans who wouldn’t even speak to each other in the liquor store — now they’re buying each other a pint.”

Four years ago, Trump won Buchanan County by a 61-point margin, securing 8 in 10 votes, even as he lost the statewide vote. Trump won better than three-quarters of the vote in 14 counties in Appalachian Virginia. 

Today, Trump flags and signs abound throughout Grundy, a town of just 911 people, while it’s challenging to find visible support for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. 

Lifelong Buchanan County resident Marci Watson acknowledges the political polarization that wracks America, but she sees Trump not as the cause of this division, but the cure.

“I believe if we continue with President Trump we’re going to collectively come back together,” Watson said. “We can come back together as nations, as states, as counties — just as neighbors.”

And if Biden wins?

“Oh no. I think it’ll be complete division.”

Southwest Virginia once voted reliably Democratic, and its transition to clean-sweep Republican within a generation demonstrates the partisan realignment that Trump accelerated, and which the 2020 election looks set to entrench for another generation.

Just as some Democratic voters stick with the party out of loyalty forged during a time when the mining union was strong and the party dominant, many of tomorrow’s Republicans are forming their political identities during a time of regional backlash against Barack Obama and embrace of Trump. In his 2016 campaign, the president consolidated the GOP’s hold on the coalfields’ white working class, and he has spent his first term stoking its grievances — against immigrants, social justice advocates and an increasingly metropolitan national Democratic Party.

Trump’s popularity has elevated other Republicans in southwestern Virginia, despite the blue wave sweeping the rest of the commonwealth. The night of the 2018 midterms, Virginia Democrats flipped three congressional seats, and incumbent U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine won by so big a margin that the Associated Press declared him the winner the moment the polls closed. But in southwestern Virginia’s 9th congressional district, Republican Corey Stewart thumped Kaine by nearly 30 points.

So how did one of the most Democratic parts of Virginia become the most Republican within the space of a generation?

“Good question. I’m still trying to figure that out,” said Rick Boucher, a Democrat who represented Virginia’s “Fighting 9th” district in Congress from 1983 until 2011. “In Buchanan County I used to get more than 80% of the vote in some of those heavy coal precincts. That was routine, election after election after election. It was the strongest Democratic county in the state of Virginia — and now it has totally flipped.”

Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Roanoke political strategist who organized rural outreach for the 2001 gubernatorial campaign that launched Mark Warner’s elected career, said this is “a very very very easy question.” He pointed to Republican consultant Mike Murphy, who theorized that Democrats go after class, Republicans after culture — and in that equation, culture wins every time.

“What happened is that the Democrats shifted to a metropolitan, big-city party,” Saunders said. “If you look at rural America now, we lost our jobs due to trade treaties. We lost our children due to no jobs being here. We don’t have any healthcare worth a damn. There’s a bunch of pent-up anger. You can take away all these things, and this group of voters would still be pissed. They want to punish somebody for doing all that stuff. Trump talks punishment, talks tough. It just fits right in with the culture.”

Through the 20th century, southwestern Virginia’s coal-producing counties helped fuel America’s rise as a superpower. The period coincided with organized labor’s peak as a cultural and political force, and the United Mine Workers of America made Southwest Virginia a reliable cornerstone for the Democratic Party. The region delivered steady margins for Democratic presidential candidates through the ‘90s, even as Virginia became a Republican-voting state in the ‘50s.

That shift toward Republicans was mirrored across rural America as unions waned, and mechanization and globalization accelerated the loss of blue-collar jobs. Southwest Virginia’s coal industry also saw a decline in jobs, but most counties continued to support Democrats until 2000, which saw Lee, Tazewell and Wise counties break for Republican George Bush over Democrat Al Gore, who was becoming outspoken about climate change. 

The dam broke in 2008, when Southwest Virginia went for Republican John McCain over Democrat Barack Obama, even as Virginia as a whole voted Democratic in a presidential contest for the first time since 1964. That year southwestern Virginia voters flipped from giving Democrats more than 50 percent of their support to giving Republicans the same margin. 

“In 2008, folks were already seeing an industry that was already in decline, and then they started seeing that decline exploited,” said Landon “Tucker” Davis, who grew up in the county and worked for the Trump campaign. “I think that was the tipping point.”

Did race play a factor in the backlash against Obama? Buchanan County is 95% white, according to the U.S. Census, and neighboring Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell counties are 98%, 98% and 95% white, respectively. Republicans deny that race played into the region’s partisan flip to vote against Obama, and even many local Democrats prefer to avoid speaking about it on the record. 

But Dustin Keith, a 25-year-old Democrat in Russell County, said that this year’s  debates over Confederate monuments and police killings of Black men have been revealing.

“Going through what we went through with this conversation on racial equity and police violence here, we heard people say out loud in a public forum things that we believed that they thought, but we actually got to hear it from their mouth,” Keith said. “I realized again that this area is home to some people who are downright racist.”

The 2008 vote against Obama proved a pivotal moment in Southwest Virginia’s partisan alignment. In 2009, a long-held Democratic state house seat in Buchanan County flipped to the GOP for the first time since the 1950s. Del. Will Morefield, who has held the seat ever since, said he heard his grandfather, a retired coal miner and UMWA member who eventually died from black lung, complain about the area’s deteriorating economic situation.

“While I was growing up, I would listen to his dissatisfaction with politics in general and how often he would talk about Southwest Virginia being left behind,” Morefield said. “It became apparent to me that Southwest Virginia was not improving economically but getting much worse with the quality of life not improving as well. The reason why the coalfields saw a major shift from being primarily a Democrat area to Republican is because the majority of people in Southwest Virginia felt like they were being left behind.”

Morefield’s victory foreshadowed the fate of Rick Boucher, then a 28-year incumbent who was considered secure in the 9th congressional district. Boucher was an early Obama supporter, and he was targeted for it, along with his role in helping write so-called “cap-and-trade” legislation to limit carbon emissions. Boucher saw the bill, which passed the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate, as a legislative alternative to more harsh regulation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Boucher’s opponents had a simpler take on his bill, expressed in three words on signs that were plastered across Southwest Virginia by the conservative political advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity: “Boucher betrayed coal.”

In the 2010 midterms, Boucher outraised and outspent his Republican opponent, state delegate Morgan Griffith, but conservative third-party groups chipped in another $1.5 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That amount sounds small compared to the fundraising hauls of 2020, but, as Boucher told Jane Mayer for her 2016 book “Dark Money,” campaign contributions go farther in the 9th than in more metro districts.

“This is Appalachia!” Boucher said to Mayer. “It’s a cheap media market. That would have been like $10 million most other places.”

Boucher estimated outside conservative activists spent between $3 to $4 million on opposition ads. “Obama had held a rally in Bristol with employees of Kroger. He started off by saying, ‘He can’t be here today, but I just want everyone to know I love Rick Boucher.’ That little bite, that 10 seconds, was played thousands of times” in ads beamed through the district, he said. “‘I love Rick Boucher.’ The 9th district didn’t love Barack Obama. It was a problem.”

Boucher still won most coal counties, but by smaller margins and turnout that couldn’t overcome Griffith’s totals elsewhere. The 9th district has since become the most Republican in Virginia. Griffith is running unopposed in 2020.

Southwestern Virginia and central Appalachia turned out Democratic incumbents throughout Obama’s two terms. Then Trump punctuated the trend in 2016 by spiking margins across the region. He appeared with miners and promised to bring the industry back, even pretending to shovel coal at rallies across Appalachia, including in Abingdon. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton had said at an Ohio town hall, “"we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She said the line as part of a longer answer about helping coal communities transition, but coalfield voters read it as a betrayal of her true intentions. Clinton has since said that remark was her biggest regret of the 2016 campaign. 

Trump also tapped something that went right to the core of rural culture, including in coal communities. He acknowledged their fears and frustrations in a way that’s won him fierce loyalty among his base. Grundy is filled not just with Trump signs, but banners and flags and even a “Hillary for prison” rehash from 2016. 

The coal industry has continued to unravel during his presidential term, with a wave of chaotic bankruptcies that claimed even Murray Energy, the largest privately held coal company in the U.S. Yet Trump’s supporters here aren’t shaken.

“Coal may not be booming right now 100%,” said Marci Watson, “but it's going to be completely gone if he's not re-elected.”

In mid-October, Watson organized the Buchanan County portion of a “Trump train” of cars that trekked around the region. On the day of the event, 382 cars participated, with at least 105 from Buchanan County.

“We had coal trucks, tractor trailers that hauled coal, cars, trucks, motorcycles, RVs,” Watson said. “Most people that attended the Trump train were folks I had never met in my county before. It was all enthusiasm and excitement about Trump Trump Trump. For lack of a better word, it was crazy. It was overwhelming that moment. It made you feel united. It made you feel like you had a common goal.”

There’s that word again: “united.”

Davis, who joined the Trump campaign in 2015, worked  in the administration, and now works for the America Rising Virginia PAC, described Trump supporters as “a big extended family.”

“No matter where you go, you see a Trump supporter, strike up a conversation with them and leave energized after,” Davis said. “If you sat around and watched the news all day, it’s easy to be consumed by this fatalistic mentality. But you go out and talk to fellow Trump supporters, you get a shot in the arm and now you’re not alone.”

In a part of Virginia that never fully recovered from the Great Recession, that’s losing population and healthcare options, that is increasingly out of step with metro Virginia, that sense of community is no small thing.

Southwest Virginia Democrats still hold some local offices, but it’s getting tougher, said Dustin Keith. 

“We’ve been going through constant division between local Democratic politics, and politics at the state and federal level,” he said. “We have a lot of Democrats who are Democrats in name only, who don’t really reflect a lot of the values in the state party and national party. There’s always that tension between how progressive can we actually be in protecting our local Democrats who are hanging on by a thread, but also advocating for strong candidates who can actually get good things done for Southwest Virginia at the state and federal level.”

In 2019, Keith said he was torn on how to satisfy both local Democrats running for constitutional offices and those who were pushing for legislative majorities in the General Assembly. The local candidates wanted to minimize their connection with the state and national party for fear of being painted as too far left, while activists focused on flipping the legislature favored a more outspoken progressive agenda. The ongoing disconnect has eroded the local party, to the point where the local committee hasn’t met since August 2019, Keith said. 

The deterioration of party structure doesn’t bode well for Democrats’ chances in the future, meaning that Southwest Virginia may yet become more Republican at the local level. In September, Buchanan County Sheriff John McClanahan announced he was leaving the Democratic Party to become a Republican.

Unless Democrats or Republicans significantly alter their approach to politics, Mudcat Saunders doesn’t see prospects for a real change in the cultural divide that’s agitating rural and urban communities.

“If the Republicans keep playing wedge politics and the Democrats keep playing identity politics, nothing’s going to happen,” Saunders said. People will continue to feel aggrieved, angry and divided.

“There’ll be some cooling off,” Saunders said. “But fire and brimstone will still be burning. Wedge politics among Republicans and identity politics among Democrats is a formula for dividing God’s children. It’s going to take somebody to say, ‘Wait a minute. Stop this bullshit. We’re all Americans. We all want the same things: to be able to pay our bills, education for our kids, healthcare.’ We need to start focusing on those things rather than dwelling on our differences.”

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