Republicans Fleeing Trump? Not in West Virginia
State GOP chairman jumps into race for Congress, offers full-throated embrace of president
The shellacking handed to the GOP in Virginia on Tuesday has sent panic-stricken Republicans scrambling to distance themselves from President Donald Trump, whom they blame for the results.
Not in West Virginia, though.
While Trump’s approval rating has eroded across the country over the past year, he remains popular in the Mountain State, where he posted his biggest margin over Democrat Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential election.
Conrad Lucas, the state Republican Party chairman, who will leave his post in January to run for an open seat in the House of Representatives in the state’s 3rd District, told LifeZette it is both good policy and good politics to support the president’s agenda.
“The folks that want to play politics and look at approval ratings aren’t doing this for the right reasons,” he said.
As the state party chairman, Lucas said, he is proud that West Virginia gave Trump his biggest win in the election.
“I believe it’s just as strong as it was,” he said.
That clearly is not the case in West Virginia’s neighbor. Democrats in Virginia swept all three statewide contests on Tuesday and posted historic gains in the House of Delegates. Exit polls suggested that 57 percent of voters disapprove of Trump’s job performance.
Rep. Scott Taylor, a Republican from Virginia Beach, told CNN in the aftermath of the vote that it would not be “intellectually consistent” to interpret the results as anything other than a “referendum” on Trump.
Lucas acknowledged that discontent is real.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about that,” he said. “But that’s why, that’s one of the reasons I’m running, because I want to support the president’s agenda.”
Scott Crichlow, a political science professor at West Virginia University, told LifeZette via email that the Virginia election demonstrated that Democratic voters are highly energized. He argued that could spill over even to West Virginia and cause problems for some state senators who won their seats by narrow margins in 2014 and are up for re-election next year.
“But this is all about moving margins — and given that Trump started his term with an enormous level of support in [West Virginia’s] 3rd District, you’d think it’d be one of the last places in the country that Republicans would turn against him,” he wrote.
Lucas — who traces his family history in West Virginia to the 18th century and who was the youngest state party chairman in the country when he became chairman in 2012 at age 32 — is hoping to replace incumbent Republican Rep. Evan Jenkins, who is running for the Senate.
Like the rest of the state, the 3rd District in the southern part of the state had been solidly Democratic for decades. But that began to change in the 1990s. Trump won 72.5 percent of the vote there in 2016. Lucas attributes part of the shift to former President Barack Obama’s anti-coal environmental policies.
“West Virginia is a state that suffered so much economically under Obama,” he said. “We were directly attacked. The core of our state was attacked, and we saw so many problems with the overreach of the federal government.”
As party chairman, Lucas helped grow the GOP from a party that could compete in national elections to one that is now dominant in state and local contests. The cherry on top came earlier this year when Democratic Gov. James Justice switched parties.
The result of that success is that Lucas faces a tough path to the nomination. Declared Republican candidates include House of Delegates Majority Whip Carol Miller; state Delegates Rupert Phillips and Rick Snuffer; and physician Ayne Amjad. More candidates could join the race before the filing deadline in January.
“As somebody who’s worked as the Republican Party chair to build up the party as best I can, I would be perfectly content with that,” Lucas said.
Lucas said that with ticket-splitting still common in West Virginia, he does not expect the Democrats to roll over, either.
“I’m always gonna run like I’m 20 points behind,” he said. “It’s a district that it’s very personality-driven in many ways, as is all politics in West Virginia … There’s no Republican in West Virginia who could ever take anything for granted whatsoever, and I certainly won’t take anything for granted.”