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When a Republican wins in Boone County . . .

When Josh Nelson decided to run for the House of Delegates in Boone County last year, even his father told him he was crazy.

Nelson, a coal miner and former Marine, is a Republican and Democrats hold a 7-1 registration advantage in Boone County.

But Nelson won, smashing Democratic incumbent Larry Barker 62 percent to 38 percent.

Nelson's victory was part of a dramatic shift in the West Virginia House of Delegates. Republicans went from 35 seats in 2010 to 46 in 2012, while Democrats dropped from 65 to 54.

The question now is whether that was a one-time occurrence or an indication of a larger trend in West Virginia toward finally becoming a two-party state.

Republican campaign strategist Greg Thomas believes it's the latter.

Thomas, who ran Republican Bill Maloney's two gubernatorial campaigns, has put together a series of election numbers he says demonstrate that the political shift in West Virginia is real.

* For example, the number of Democratic votes for House of Delegates candidates is trending downward. It reached 923,000 in 2004, dropped slightly in 2008, then plummeted to 577,000 in the last election.

* Meanwhile, the number of votes cast for Republican House members has been generally trending upward. Republican House candidates received 36,000 more votes in 2012 than 2008, while Democratic House candidates received 324,000 fewer votes.

One explanation is that the Republican Party is doing a better job fielding viable candidates.

* In 2008, there were only 62 Republican House candidates, compared with 93 Democrats. In 2012, there were 82 Republican and 87 Democratic candidates.

"The reason the GOP is picking up seats is because we are providing a choice," Thomas told me.

And even though Bill Maloney lost the governor's race, he had a solid showing, which corresponded with the gains in the House. Again, consider the numbers, as supplied by Thomas:

* In 2004, the GOP gubernatorial candidate received 34 percent of the vote and 32 Republican House members won. In 2008, the Republican gubernatorial candidate had 26 percent of the vote and 31 delegates won.

* But in 2012, Maloney received 46 percent of the vote and 46 GOP delegates won.

In fact, Thomas says, Maloney carried 34 of the 67 delegate districts.

The success of Republican House candidates may also be tied to voters' views of the condition of the state. Republican pollster Mark Blankenship found that West Virginians increasingly believe the state is on the wrong track.

* In June of 2011, 56 percent said the state was headed in the right direction. By last October, that had dropped to 46 percent, with 49 percent saying the state is on the wrong track.

Thomas believes that if the Republican Party can continue to field credible candidates who can articulate the differences between the two parties, Republicans have a chance of taking over the House, perhaps as soon as 2014.

West Virginia Democratic strategists love to hate Thomas and his in-your-face style, so they may dismiss his Republican trend theory outright. And they'll point out that Thomas has lost a lot more races than he's won.

But when the House goes into session next month, Josh Nelson will be sitting in the chamber. If a Republican can win in Boone County, then anything is possible.

Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.


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