Democrat voter base in decline
Though still in the majority statewide, West Virginia Democrats have seen their ranks erode over the last four years as independents have gained force.
There are about 30,000 fewer Democrats in the state than in 2008, according to voter registration data provided by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant's office,
There were 638,086 registered Democrats in the state as of the end of August. That's about 4 percent less than the 667,922 in August 2008.
Meanwhile, the number of people in the state claiming no party affiliation rose almost 55,000 over the same time period. The number of independent voters rose 34 percent from 160,883 in 2008 to 215,512 this year.
State Democratic Party Executive Director Derek Scarbro said national trends could be behind the rise of independent voters.
"It's no question there's been a long-term trend in the increased growth in independent voters," Scarbro said. "That's been going on 20 or 30 years as a national trend."
But state GOP chairman Conrad Lucas said the changes have more to do with the fact that the state Democratic Party has endorsed President Barack Obama and other national Democratic platform ideas that are more liberal than state voters.
"The Democratic Party no longer represents the values of the state," Lucas said.
"We see it really as the absolute implosion of the state Democratic Party," he said. "You saw it in the 41 percent that voted for Keith Judd in the primary - that wasn't an accident that happened."
Judd is a convicted felon serving a 17 1/2-year sentence in Texas.
Despite the so-called implosion within the Democratic ranks, Republicans have not been able to capitalize on the drop in Democratic registration.
The GOP boasts only about 5,000 more members today than it did in 2008, rising from 348,139 in 2008 to 353,179 this year.
About 52 percent of voters in West Virginia remain Democrats. Republicans fall in line with 29 percent and independents make up just below 18 percent. The Mountain Party and other political parties make up less than 2 percent.
West Virginia University political science professor Neil Berch said the national rise in independents is affecting the state's voting base. But Berch said a few other factors could also be at play.
"Some of it is probably the gap between the national Democratic Party and the West Virginia Democratic Party," Berch said.
Polls indicate more than 60 percent of West Virginians identify themselves as conservatives, which can drive some Democrats away from more liberal aspects of the national party's platform.
Berch also said demographics could be a factor.
"You may lose - in a particular time period - older, more Democratic voters and over time replace them with younger people who are more likely to be independents," he said.
While they may not register with his party, Scarbro said younger independents are good for the Democratic Party.
"Yes, they do register independent, but according to the numbers, they vote Democratic," he said.
Scarbro said the party has targeted these voters.
"We reach out to those people, we encourage our candidates to do so, and that's why we opened our primary in 2008 to allow them to participate," he said.
He also said the rate of growth in independents may actually do more damage to the hold of the state Republican Party.
"Democrats are still the largest segment of (registered voters), and you're seeing independents grow at a faster rate," Scarbro said. "I think you're going to see that trend increase and, by the next two or four years, you'll likely see the number of independents pass the number of Republicans in some counties."
Lucas, of course, disagreed with that prediction.
"Our prediction is that, whatever it boils down to, we're going to see increases in our numbers," he said. "Democrats will see rapid losses in their ranks and independents will grow as well."
He said his primary focus for 2013 is going to be registering new Republican voters, and he plans to do that by targeting disillusioned Democrats and conservative independents.
"We see a lot of this as people switching from Democrat to independent, and now we see it as our job to convince them to join with the party that truly represents the state," Lucas said.
Contact writer Jared Hunt at email@example.com or 304-348-5148.