Are WV politicians running as Republicans because of values or because they want to win?

October 17, 2023 5:57 am

Former Del. Doug Skaff announced last week that he is leaving the Democratic Party and running as a Republican for West Virginia Secretary of State. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

In a surprise to absolutely no one, Doug Skaff switched to the Republican Party and has filed as a pre-candidate to run for West Virginia Secretary of State.

Reporters have been hearing those rumors of a possible party switch since early summer, though Skaff denied them when asked after he stepped down as West Virginia House speaker, and then walked back those comments a month later when he resigned from the House of Delegates.

Skaff, the president of the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s parent company HD Media, told the newspaper that he no longer relates to the national Democratic party. (Full disclosure: I was formerly employed as city editor at the Gazette-Mail.)

“I’m not the first person to switch their party affiliation and I won’t be the last,” Skaff said.

And that’s true. Owner of HD Media, Doug Reynolds, also switched to the Republican Party in November 2021, three years after buying the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Gov. Jim Justice, who ran as a Democrat for the 2016 election, announced his return to the Republican Party in 2017 when his bestie/role model former President Donald Trump held a rally in Huntington, West Virginia. 

Justice was a registered Republican before his run for governor, when he switched to the Democratic Party. For decades, West Virginia was a blue state — Democrats were the majority party in the Statehouse for 83 years. We’ve had 20 Democratic governors vs. 15 Republican governors, then Justice who has been both. The three governors before Justice were all Democrats.

Since 2000, Republican presidential candidates have won West Virginia every year. Our representatives in Congress have gone from all Democrats to three Republicans and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a very conservative Democrat who often votes with Republicans.

But wait, there’s more:

  • Former U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins joined the Republican Party in 2013 before his successful run for Congress in 2014. 
  • Sen. Jason Barrett, R-Berkely, won a seat in the state House of Delegates in 2012 as a Democrat, and again in 2016. He switched to the Republican Party in December 2020 and in November 2022 was elected to his current position. 
  • Former Del. Mike Bates, who served in the state House from 2014 to 2022, announced his switch to the Republican Party in May 2021. He lost the Republican primary in May 2022.
  • Former state Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, ran as a Republican in 2006 for a seat in the House of Delegates and lost. He then ran as a Democrat for a seat in the Senate in 2012, and won. Then in 2014, Hall switched back to the Republican Party a day after the 2014 midterm elections, allowing Republicans to control both chambers of the Statehouse for the first time in 83 years. 
  • Sen. Glenn Jeffries, R-Putnam, switched to the Republican Party in December 2022. 
  • Del. Elliott Pritt, R-Fayette, switched to the Republican Party in April 2023 after he defeated the Republican incumbent as a Democrat in 2022. 

So what reasons are these men giving for the switch? Have their views and beliefs changed? Are they out of touch with Democrats? No, they say it’s the national party that’s wrong.

“These were hardcore West Virginians who were pro-life, pro-gun, pro-coal, pro-gas and they all switched parties. So like a lot of West Virginians, you know, my ideals never changed. I was always that way as well. I was registered a Democrat, and I’m proud to be on the Republican team and just can’t relate to the national party any more,” Skaff said on MetroNews Talkline on Thursday.

But the Republican Party isn’t proud to welcome Skaff to the team.

“The West Virginia Republican Party recognizes the philosophical nuances that can exist within the Party and welcomes those who genuinely believe in our cause; however, Republican voters are sometimes tasked with differentiating between ‘philosophical nuances’ and ‘diametric ideological opposition.’ Now that Skaff is labeling himself as a ‘Republican,’ despite his storied liberal record in the House, the upcoming primary is one of those times,” West Virginia Republican Party Chairwoman Elgine McArdle said in a statement

The Democratic Party wasn’t sad to see him go either.

West Virginia Democratic Party Chair Mike Pushkin responded to the news with a snarky press release stating, “While I appreciate Doug finally putting his cards on the table about his long-rumored, politically expedient party switch, I’m surprised he would try to reinvent himself as a right-wing conservative in the process.”

Republicans are obviously winning more elections than Democrats in West Virginia, but will becoming part of the supermajority party help Skaff win?

Our once-blue state has turned so red that in the 2022 General Election, 25 Republicans ran unopposed in legislative races.

The 2024 election is already looking to be Republican-heavy — as of Friday, 154 have filed pre-candidacy forms, while only 23 Democrats have. There’s still time though — the deadline for filing is in January.

But that doesn’t mean voters are flocking to the Republican Party. In 2022, 33.22% of West Virginia voters were registered as Democrats, while 39% were registered as Republicans — leaving about 28% of voters as independent or third party voters. 

If anything, changing parties just gave Skaff less of a chance — so far all six people who have filed as a pre-candidate for Secretary of State are Republicans. If he had been the only Democrat running, he would have at least made it to the General Election. 

The party switch may not be the weirdest part of the news though. The secretary of state responsibilities include overseeing elections and overseeing the incorporation of businesses and licensing matters. The president of a newspaper company is running for secretary of state, the office that also regulates newspaper legal ads, which produces a large portion of newspaper revenue.

Ballotpedia keeps track of state legislators who change parties — so far in 2023, there’s been 10 recorded, not including Skaff, who as of Monday afternoon was still listed as a Democrat according to the West Virginia Secretary of State’s website.

“In recent decades, the red states have become redder, the blue states bluer and the number of swing states has fallen dramatically,” William Galston, senior fellow of governance studies at the Brookings Institute, told Politico. “When this happens, the minority parties lose power in the legislature and the advantages of being in the majority increase.”

What are some of those advantages? Well, Pritt told Politico since joining the Republican Party, state agencies are actually returning his calls.

If a journalist you love has brought up the idea of joining the Republican Party this week, just know it’s because they’re tired of being ghosted by the government. 


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Leann Ray
Leann Ray

Leann Ray is a lifelong West Virginian. Her work at the Daily Athenaeum and Charleston Gazette-Mail has won numerous awards. She is a graduate of West Virginia University.