2020 Democratic Primary: West Virginia Governor

3 min readJun 9, 2020


West Virginia Governor: Stephen Smith

The largely rural state is well known for its Democratic tradition but has trended red in recent years.

The Candidate

Stephen Smith has been one of the strongest fundraisers and movement builders in the 2020 cycle, especially for governor. His movement, West Virginia Can’t Wait, is now a strong infrastructure to not just power his own campaign but other populist Democratic candidates in the state. Regardless of whether he succeeds tonight, he will have done something special by activating so many voters who may have otherwise sat out this primary. He doesn’t list any notable endorsements on his website but does have an entire slate of fellow progressives behind him. He’s been campaigning since early 2019, which hopefully gave him more time to talk to voters before COVID-19.

Smith’s fundraising has been good the entire cycle, amassing nearly one million dollars at his final filing deadline. He ended up with about 112k COH right before the election. That’s certainly enough money to compete.

The State

West Virginia is a largely rural state with deep Democratic roots. Every politician in West Virginia stands in the shadow of Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat senator from West Virginia who is famous for shooting things in commercials. It is worth noting that Paula Jean Swearengin got about 30% of the vote against Manchin in 2018 so there is certainly some progressive and anti-Blue Dog sentiment.

The state lacks any real density. There is one major university, the University of West Virginia at Morgantown. Watch Monogalia County, where the University of West Virginia is; if Smith isn’t winning that county or coming close, it’s probably the end of the campaign. There is a notable Black population and the state is older than the national average.

The Race

There are two irrelevant candidates in the race: Jody Murphy and Douglas Hughes. They both have limited financial resources and almost no online presence. There are three serious candidates in the race: Smith, Ron Stollings, and Ben Salango. In a recent poll, Smith received 27%, Stollings 10%, and Salango 30%. This tracks with fundraising but not with endorsements. Salango clearly outnumbers Smith, including the coveted Joe Manchin endorsement. This is a major problem for Smith and I imagine if he comes up short, as I project he will, it will be because he never built that institutional support.

This is how fundraising breaks down:

  • Smith — 782k raised total, 113k COH
  • Salango- 716k raised total, 100k COH
  • Stollings — 246k raised total, 33k COH

Smith never got the big endorsements from AOC or Bernie so his fundraising is especially impressive. I imagine this is his greatest asset; he probably ran ads and had the ability to get his message out. That’s why I think he’ll improve on his 27% in the poll. However, the endorsement race is a huge problem. The question will be whether or not Stollings can shave points off of Salango’s number, making way for Smith.

A Review of the Pros and Cons:


  • Plenty of money
  • Good COH
  • Started early
  • Focused on turning out underrepresented voters
  • Major university


  • Almost no density
  • Strong opponent with all endorsements
  • No union support in a very union-heavy state
  • Only other statewide Democrat is Blue Dog

Final Thoughts

I think Smith can win, actually very easily. If Stollings rallies, the two irrelevant candidates make up more of the vote than I think, and Smith picks up last minute voters, the race is well within reach. The lack of institutional support really scares me though; Smith will really need Stollings to hold back Salango for his 35–45% to put him over the top. The state has shown signs of progressivism with Paula Jean Swearengin and Richard Ojeda in 2018. Even Jim Justice, the current Republican governor, was elected as a Democrat before switching parties. The strong “Democrat” brand is not gone in West Virginia and if Smith can harness some of that classic West Virginia populism, he can push himself over the finish line. All that said, I think it’ll be a close loss for Smith because Stollings won’t do enough to slow down Salango. There’s a good deal of uncertainty even with a poll done. Where do those undecided voters go?


Salango — 43

Smith — 37

Stollings — 17

Others — 3



Chance of victory:





I analyze and project congressional and senate races with progressives in them.