On January 26th, a few days prior to the publication of this article, Rupert “Rupie” Phillips, Jr., a member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, walked into the Secretary of State’s office to officially change his party affiliation. Delegate Phillips, originally a Democrat that had been elected to his first legislature in 2010–the year Republicans took control of the House for the first time in eight decades–switched his party affiliation to independent. The change, a relatively uncommon occurrence, brought the composition of the days-old legislature to 63 Republicans, 36 Democrats, and one independent: Rupie.
“I feel it’s time to make a change,” Delegate Phillips told Hoppy Kercheval, the host of Talkline on West Virginia MetroNews Radio, a popular state-centric news show, “I feel that the liberal Democrat Party has hijacked the conservative people of my district and they’re not representing the values that we have down home.” Home for Delegate Phillips is Logan County, West Virginia. His constituents reside largely within Logan County, except for the slivers of neighboring Wyoming and Boone Counties that contribute to the approximately 17,000 souls composing Phillips’ constituency. Delegate Phillips’ district is also in Southern West Virginia, the very heart of coal country and Trump country.
Logan County, with its high rates of union membership and low-skill, low-income laborers, has long been a stronghold for Democrats in West Virginia. For every Republican registered to vote in Logan, there are nearly six registered Democrats. Logan also ranks amongst the worst compared to the rest of the counties in the state in terms of income below the poverty line, household and individual health, and drug and alcohol usage.
For Delegate Phillips to remove the “D” next to his name on the ballot is an absolute anomaly. But, it’s an anomaly that can be explained: Enter Donald J. Trump.
The rise of Trump as a politician and pseudo-ideology has been astronomical in places like West Virginia. Long home to conservative Democrats, West Virginia is fertile ground to a disruptor like Trump. Trump offers the chance to change a system that has desecrated the Mountain State through moving the national economy away from fossil fuels–effectively pulling the floor out from underneath of hundreds of thousands West Virginia workers, many of whom are Democrats–and instituting rules that threaten the values the vast majority of West Virginians hold dear.
“I support Donald Trump and the direction he is taking our country,” Delegate Phillips continued the defense of his decision, “He’s been fighting for coal, he stands for our gun rights and everything. He stands for God.” Phillips is a true product of his environment. Born in Man, West Virginia, a small southern coal town that has not seen more than 1,000 residents since 1980, Phillips is well attuned to the feelings of the state’s large Blue Dog population. Much like their Republican counterparts, the conservative Democrats feel strongly when it comes to strengthening the coal industry and social issues like preserving 2nd amendment rights and protecting the unborn. Unlike Hillary Clinton and the “D.C Democrats,”Donald Trump offered all of these things to this political group without a politician.
“There’s one thing that really stuck out to me back during last year’s general election. It was the third presidential debate when Trump made the comment about the 38-and-a-half week pregnancy that Hillary doesn’t care to kill that baby. And the look on her face–she didn’t twitch, she didn’t blink–it was just like looking into space. And that has just bothered the hell out of me that she has no morals to her. And I feel that’s the liberal DC democrats, it’s not the southern democrats that I have been born and raised to be. And that bothers me.” – Delegate Rupie Phillips (I-Logan, 24)
To the blue-collar Republicans and conservative Democrats in West Virginia, Donald Trump lends a voice to a forgotten subset of individuals. Regardless of political affiliation, many West Virginians are scraping the bottom of the barrel and the Democratic policies–long framed as beneficial to people like these Blue Dog Democrats or pro-entitlement Republicans–are neither appealing nor helpful to the average Mountain Stater.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders forcing the issue of trade into the national conversation is the other half of this equation. One of my first phone calls while on a campaign in West Virginia was with a computer programmer and independent voter who supported Trump. While a computer programmer in West Virginia is a fairly unique profession, the reason why she supported Trump was something I heard time and time again. Trade deals–specifically NAFTA and, if implemented, the TPP–had shipped all of the jobs in some both low-skill and high-skill industries out of the States. There was no work to be done or jobs to be had.
The need for jobs, the dedication to conservative, religion-oriented social policies, and the desire to get back to coal and other fossil fuels are what has been driving the directionality of West Virginia politics for the last 17 years. These are the reasons for Rupie Phillips’ presence at the door of the Secretary of States’ office last week. It is indicative of the dire dismay that “down home” Democrats have with the rest of their party that, even in Democratic bulwarks like Logan County, leaders are dropping the “D” and separating themselves from an ideology that is not theirs.
Photo: Washington Times
“Hopefully this will start a trend and more people will see what I’m doing,” Delegate Phillips concludes, “it’s for the people, it’s not for the party.”
It’s worth asking if this is truly a politician reflecting the choices of his constituents or rather simple political opportunism. I would argue the former. While, yes, it’s true Delegate Phillips could be doing better in his vote margins–he won the second of two seats by 1,500 votes in a three-way race, winning about a third of the votes in each county, which is a dangerous place to be for someone who faces re-election every two years–Phillips is also just one of the thousands of West Virginia Democrats who supported Trump and feels no kinship to Democrats on a national level.
The fallout from this election is still unknown. For now, Trump continues to fulfill campaign promises on trade and halting abortion through his executive actions. So far, these orders have pleased many West Virginians. Meanwhile, Delegate Phillips continues to hold his seat in the House, although–without any party members with which to caucus–his contributions will be marginal, at best. Perhaps Delegate Phillips’ greatest contribution to change this year will be the opening of the flood gates for other out-of-place Democrats to defect from their estranged party. Only time will tell.