It’s no hard task to imagine the rivalry between Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Paula Jean Swearengin playing out between both candidates’ grandfathers in Appalachia 100 years ago. The two women running for the US Senate in West Virginia come down on opposite sides of just about every issue, much as their fathers and grandfathers had before them.
Swearengin descends from two generations of coal miners, while Capito belongs to a five-generation dynasty of West Virginia politicians. To this day, the century-long tension between the extractive-industry barons of West Virginia and the workers toiling in their mines is still on display around the necks of Swearengin and her Republican opponent: Paula Jean favors the red bandanna made famous by militant “redneck” coal miners, while Capito never fails to appear at committee meetings in pearls.
The race pitting a coal miner’s daughter against a political matriarch mirrors the stark contradictions of a state where Bernie Sanders won the Democratic primary in every county in 2016 but which Trump took by an overwhelming 68 percent in the general election—the largest Trump vote share of any state. Despite the talk of political polarization that has flourished since 2016, the moderate politics of West Virginia’s Republican Senator Capito and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin are almost indistinguishable from each other, placing them both at odds with much of the electorate. As the state’s red hue deepens and Trump’s GOP drags Capito further to the right, those moderate politics are sure to change, one way or another.
A Capito victory would signal total Republican capture of a state where Republicans also hold the governor’s house, the auditor’s office, and the attorney general’s seat. Democrats have made large gains in the state House, but with total Republican command of top posts in state government, Democrats face mounting challenges. Ultimately, national Democrats’ total abandonment of the state—accelerated by Trump’s election—is what allowed Republicans to initiate their takeover in the first place.
With no plans for an economic stimulus to replace the dying coal industry, the national Democratic Party has written off West Virginia, declining to flex its financial muscle in support of progressive firebrands like Stephen Smith during his gubernatorial bid and failing to focus any serious money or organizing resources on rebuilding power in the state. Democrats’ refusal to support progressives in what was once a deep-blue union state ignores the 23 percent of voters registered as independents, as well as the fact that more West Virginian voters are still registered as Democrats than as Republicans. Richard Ojeda’s 2018 loss to Carol Miller for one of West Virginia’s three House seats served as a testament to the uphill battle that any Democrat, outsider or otherwise, faces running for office in the state.
Ojeda, a rabble-rousing former paratrooper running on a populist platform, rocketed into the spotlight after hitching his wagon to the statewide teachers strike. It wasn’t clear if Ojeda’s maverick personality always served to bolster the public’s confidence, and whether his Facebook rants enamored him to older voters or scared them away. But his idiosyncrasies as a candidate aside, his loss by an astounding 13 points to the Trump-endorsed Miller illustrated just how hard winning a blue seat in the state has become. West Virginia’s House congressional districts run from east to west, creating a three-way split that fractures pockets of blue support in the far northern and southwestern parts of the state. With those demographics diluted, the chance of unseating a Republican incumbent in the House is kept out of reach.
The strength of incumbency changes, though, when it comes to the Senate. A Republican hasn’t won reelection there since 1907, and Capito, the daughter of former West Virginia governor Arch Moore, could be the senator to break the trend, in spite of her father’s fraught history in the state. Governor Moore survived blowback from a federal extortion investigation in 1975 and the public outrage stemming from a deal he struck accepting 1 percent of the damages originally sought by the state after the Buffalo Creek Disaster that killed 125 and left 4,000 homeless, signing off on the deal just days before leaving office. His record of criminal wrongdoings ultimately caught up with him, and he pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice, receiving a five-year sentence in 1990.
Most notable among Arch Moore’s crimes was helping the coal company Maben Energy Corporation secure a $2 million refund from West Virginia’s Black Lung Fund—a trust for miners with black lung funded by employers—in exchange for a $570,000 payoff. As Moore stuck his hand in the Black Lung Fund that miners relied on to support themselves and their families, Swearengin’s father and uncle toiled in the coal fields that would eventually cause their deaths. Both her grandfather and an uncle died of black lung—her father of cancer at the age of 55. Arch Moore died a free man in 2015 at the age of 91, one day after his daughter was sworn in to the US Senate, and two years before his grandson, Riley Moore, entered the West Virginia House of Delegates.
Arriving in the Senate in 2015, Capito furthered her father’s legacy in the state by helping coal companies attack the Black Lung Fund yet again, this time by targeting the tax on coal companies that supports the dwindling reserve. The Black Lung Benefits Act of 1978 established a government trust to pay benefits to miners and the families of miners disabled by the occupational disease. The fund is supposed to be supported by the excise tax charged to coal producers on every ton of coal mined for domestic use, but the US Treasury has spent billions bailing it out since its inception. A 2018 study released by the Government Accountability Office estimated that the fund’s debt could rise to $15 billion by 2050. To make matters worse, while the tax was once $1.10 for every ton of coal mined from subsurface mines, and $.50 for every ton mined from the surface, it dropped to $.50 and $.25 respectively after the funding hike expired. Though it was raised back up to the $1.10 level for this year after a one-year extension squeaked in by Congress, the future of the tax, opposed by the coal industry, remains uncertain.
In March, the United Mine Workers of America endorsed Capito, despite her failing 28 percent lifetime rating from the AFL-CIO and her record supporting “right to work” legislation. The union’s stated reason: Last year Capito helped to secure a bailout for the UMWA’s underwater pension fund, sunk into oblivion by coal company bankruptcies. Companies like Patriot Coal paid out millions in executive bonuses while leaving the pensions of the miners who built their empire of coal bone dry.
Capito has wielded the billion-dollar bailout and the UMWA’s desperation as a bludgeon to beat back those who point out that Mitch McConnell stripped out a 10-year extension of the excise tax that pays for the black lung fund in the same bill funding the UMWA’s bailout. In the omnibus bill passed in 2019, the 10-year extension was nowhere to be found, and Capito has refused to cosponsor Senator Manchin’s renewed effort to pass the life-saving extension. In short, the black lung fund was traded away for the bailout, which by McConnell’s calculation was the only way to stave off a blue wave of miner fury.
But even with the annual commitment of $750 million in taxpayer subsidies to the UMWA fund, sick coal miners are still struggling to make ends meet and to pay for health care. Many are locked in battles with coal companies for what they are owed, even lobbying unsuccessfully for a state-backed black lung fund, financed by a new energy-producer tax. McConnell may have staved off the blowback from thousands of angry miners losing their pensions, but their battles for health care and fair compensation are far from won.
In addition to the UMWA’s pension fund, Capito also benefited from a much larger bailout, this time after the government’s intervention to save the banks during the 2008 financial crash. While serving as a US representative before her election to the Senate, Capito sat on the House Financial Services Committee, where she was briefed during the lead-up to the crash on the instability of America’s biggest banks. Among them was Citigroup, where her husband worked, and where the Capito family owned considerable shares of stock.
As the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in 2014, “In her ‘Disclosure Statement to the House for 2008,’ Capito reported selling Citigroup stock shares worth between $100,000 and $250,000 in three different sales. The last sale took place on Nov. 18, a day before Citigroup stock lost 23 percent of its value.”
The trades not only avoided a massive loss on return; it actually netted the Capito family $50,000 in profit, more money than the median household income in West Virginia. The same year that Capito touted her vote against the bank bailout, her husband drew three salaries from big banks: one from Morgan Stanley, one from Citigroup, and one from United Bank, all three of which received millions in taxpayer-funded bailouts. When pressed to disclose the exact amount of those salaries, Capito and her husband refused.
With the recent passing of Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new variable has complicated the race to elect West Virginia’s senator: how Capito and Manchin will vote should the Senate attempt to push through Trump’s SCOTUS nominee before the November election. Both Capito and Manchin voted to confirm Trump’s past appointments to the Supreme Court, but with a 6-3 conservative majority now at stake, a yes vote from Capito could imperil the ACA, which tens of thousands of West Virginians rely on for health coverage. It could also roll back more than a century of labor protections that would affect the workers represented by the AFL-CIO and UMWA. On the other hand, a no vote would enrage the pro-Trump voter base that Capito relies on to maintain her incumbency.
“I’m sure unions are very wary right now of what a 6-3 conservative deliberate split would mean for not just unions but for working people generally.” Jason Kozlowski, a labor historian and labor educator at West Virginia University told The Nation. “From the UMWA’s standpoint though, Capito represents the values of its conservative wing. Despite her support for right-to-work legislation and her conservative stance on prevailing wage which hurts other union members and workers, she does have a decent track record on defending miners specifically.”
Kozlowski says he’s doubtful that the AFL-CIO will get involved with the race given their preference for endorsing pro-labor candidates in down-ballot West Virginia races. Regardless of union endorsements, the tremendous damage a conservative Supreme Court justice poses to labor could bolster the cause of a candidate like Swearengin, whose maverick appeal speaks to West Virginian voters.
“It was telling that Sanders won the Democratic primary by almost the same percentage as Trump won the presidential election,” Kozlowski said. “I think some of that is the outsider appeal that speaks to people and has a history in the early 20th century where socialist candidates gained office here in the state.”
With the coal industry on the brink of total collapse despite Trump’s promises to revitalize it, a perverse suicide pact has emerged in West Virginia. Miners rely on the pittance afforded them by politicians enthralled in the donations of declining coal companies, who in turn rely on the politicians to block legislation that would tax their coal or force them to pay out the pensions they owe to miners. As the population continues to decline and the state spirals deeper and deeper into poverty and dysfunction, neither Capito nor Manchin is willing to be the first to admit that coal is no longer a viable way forward for West Virginia, or offer any substitute to revitalize the Mountain State.
That’s why Swearengin says partisan politics should come second to material issues: Before her most recent bid to challenge the Republican Capito, she ran to unseat Democratic Manchin in 2018. Swearengin told The Nation that her priority is fighting for working-class people, no matter the party affiliation of the person standing in her way.
“Here in West Virginia we had 93 candidates who stood up and are not taking corporate PAC dollars with West Virginia Can’t Wait. Forty-three won their primaries. Now we’re going to take the fight to the Senate, and win. It’s about people over corporations, and refusing their dirty money, regardless of party.”
As The Intercept reported in June, West Virginia Can’t Wait formed a coalition of Democrats, independents, Mountain Party candidates, and Libertarians that pledged to reject “corporate PACs, corporate lobbyists or executives from Big Pharma, Big Energy, or out-of-state land-holding companies.” Paula Jean has made her grassroots funding a centerpiece of her campaign, contrasting it with the millions in high-dollar corporate donations Capito has deposited into her war chest. “The reason we went for Sanders in the primary and Trump in the general is because people are fed up with the same tired politicians that have failed us over and over again,” Swearengin said.
This election cycle, Capito is the second-highest recipient of chemical and mining industry donations, and the third-highest recipient from for-profit prisons, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s also taken $180,000 from the telecom industry, despite West Virginia’s ranking towards the bottom of all states for high-speed Internet access.
In contrast, Swearengin’s platform relies on small-dollar donations, and has prioritized Medicare for All and a two-pronged commitment to fight for the protection of active and retired miners, while simultaneously creating green jobs for those who have been locked out of work by the bankruptcies sweeping the major coal companies. So far, Swearengin has won the endorsements of Brand New Congress, the Working Families Party, Blue America, Flip the Senate, Save Main Street, Progressives Rising, Future Generations, 90 for 90, the Eastern Panhandle Green Coalition, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Ed Markey.
She says that it’s important that the people representing West Virginia actually know and talk like real West Virginians. The single mother of four has waited tables and flipped burgers at McDonald’s. Most recently, she worked in a medical billing office, where she witnessed people unable to pay for basic health services struggling under sky-high deductibles and the lack of advocacy that afflicts nonunion workers.
“Right now we have fewer and fewer union coal miners in West Virginia every day,” she said. “Patriot filed for bankruptcy, they gave themselves big bonuses, and then they opened up nonunion scab mines. And then I hear Manchin and Capito talking about holding the industry accountable. Well, if I were in Congress, you better believe I would have raised six tons of hell over this. We tapped into the abandoned mine land fund to pay for pensions, and that money was to clean up the mines, not make up the difference of what the companies stole from workers. I buried my baby brother this year because of the opioid crisis, I’ve seen my friends and family, strong miners born and bred in these hills out of work, and people crying out for help.”
Along with Democratic party officials, pundits and pollsters have written of West Virginia as a solid-red state, with The Cook Political Report giving all three house races and the Capito-Swearengin match-up solid R ratings. But it’s a prophecy that Democrats have conjured into existence, weighing the political benefit of investment in the state and ultimately choosing to look away from the barbarism seeping out of West Virginia’s rapidly darkening coal fields. Political polarization has gripped the state, and Trump has capitalized on a power vacuum that could have handily been seized by radical Democrats. While Paula Jean’s odds for victory may be a long shot, her resolve to carry the torch of progressivism in West Virginia is stronger than ever.
“If Shelley Moore Capito thinks she can sell out workers while striking back-room deals with the coal companies that hung them out to dry, well, she has another thing coming in November.”