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Once solidly Democratic, Putnam now dominated by Republicans

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - When she first ran for election in 1984, Kylene Dunlap Brown kept hearing one thing: You can't win. You're a Republican.

"Republicans were just a speck on the map back then," she said.

That map would be of Putnam County, where Brown was running for magistrate - in a county that was saturated with Democratic officeholders and candidates for local and state office, in a state that looked much the same.

But the landscape has changed.

In last week's election, Brown handily won reelection (she won that first race, too, but narrowly). And she wasn't the only Republican who had an easier time of it this year.

Four county-level races were contested. Republicans won them all, gaining two offices formerly held by Democrats. That means Republicans soon will occupy all but two of the county's offices.

Strictly by the numbers, this looks unlikely: the electorate is split nearly evenly between the two parties, with 15,017 registered Republicans and 15,024 registered Democrats. There are about 6,000 independents.

More than 3,500 Republicans cast straight-ticket ballots, nearly twice as many as straight Democratic votes.

"Obviously that helps," said Brian Wood, Putnam County clerk and a Republican himself. "It's probably not enough to decide everything, but it helps."

It also shows how passionate voters were about voting Republican, he said. Such passion could easily manifest itself in advocacy for the party, even if only through one-on-one talks with undecided voters, "neighbors or friends."

Putnam County Democrats probably weren't too hard to win over, he said. Like many West Virginians, they've become disenchanted with the top of the ticket and the direction of the party. To Wood, it seems most Putnam voters shared Republican values, no matter what it says on their voter registration cards.

"The West Virginia Democrat is still that blue collar worker, and the West Virginia Republican can still relate to that," he said. "They're voting their values rather than their party, and you can't shame them for that."

The Republicans taking office in Putnam County don't think the Democrats they won over had a good thumping coming to them, or that a Democrat in office would spell disaster in the county. That's just not how local politics work, they say.

"These people you're serving with are your neighbors," said Joe Haynes, a returning county commissioner.

When its newly elected Republican commissioner, Andy Skidmore, takes his seat, the Putnam County Commission will be composed entirely of Republicans. That's a change from the last few years, but it's been this way before, from 2004 to 2006.

Haynes has seen it both ways and said the partisan dynamics don't make much of a difference to proceedings.

"On a local level I'm not sure it comes into play that much except on a philosophical level," he said. "Even if you have differences, you take your vote and you move on. There's no vindictiveness."

If you look at the commission's decisions over the past few years, he said, there will sometimes be an odd man out, voting differently than the other two commissioners - but these differences don't always follow party lines.

"Most of the things are so basic it doesn't come out like that," he said.

Republican Mark Sorsaia, prosecuting attorney, said this year's election results are, more than anything, evidence of a healthy two-party system in Putnam County, where informed voters are evaluating individual candidates on their merits rather than their politics.

"We get into fights during elections, but once we get elected, we all try to work together," he said.

"If that happened in Washington, this country would be a better place to be."

In addition to Skidmore, Republicans elected last week include Joe Reeder, circuit judge; Steve Deweese, sheriff; and Sherry Hayes, assessor.

The only Democrats retaining county offices are Circuit Judge Phil Stowers and surveyor Randy Crace.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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