Paula Jean Swearengin wins Democratic primary for WV senate seat

On Tuesday there were primary elections in several states and much media attention has rightly focused on the fiasco in Georgia where once again voters in De Kalb and Fulton counties, the latter where the city of Atlanta is, and where both have large black populations, faced lines that lasted for many hours to vote, a further example of how the Republican-controlled state government tries to suppress black votes by making it much harder for them than for white districts, by having far too few polling stations, malfunctioning equipment, and insufficient and inadequately trained poll workers.

But I want to focus on one good result that happened in a different state.

The 2019 Netflix documentary Knock Down the House that I reviewed here focused on four progressive women candidates who challenged conservative incumbent Democratic members of congress in the 2018 primary elections. Of the four only one was successful, and that was Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning win over Joe Crowley. She went on to be elected to Congress in November of that year and has made a name for herself by fighting for progressive causes.

This year sees one of the other three Paula Jean Swearengin win her primary race for the US senate seat in West Virginia. She had lost in the 2018 senate primary to incumbent Joe Manchin, one of the most conservative Democrats in the senate. This time she has won her senate primary and will be challenging the other incumbent senator Republican Shelley Moore Capito in November.

(For those who live outside the US and are baffled by the system here, party candidates for the November general elections (that are held every even year in November) are selected in primary elections earlier in those years. Each state elects two senators, each for six-year terms, and a varying number of representatives proportional to the population of the state, each for two years. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are up for election every even year but only one-third of the 100 senate seats. Manchin’s six-year term was up in 2018 and he was re-elected until 2024 while Capito’s senate seat falls due this year and whoever wins that will remain in that office until 2026. There will be no West Virginia senate election in 2022. Got it?)

Swearengin, the daughter and granddaughter of coal miners, ran on an unabashedly progressive platform. She was backed by Bernie Sanders and a host of progressive groups, such as Brand New Congress, Blue America, Flip the Senate, Save Main Street, Progressives Rising, Future Generations, 90 for 90, and the Eastern Panhandle Green Coalition, Progressive Democrats for America, Forward Thinking Democracy, Women for Bernie, Silvers for Sanders, and People for Bernie.

Swearengin’s website says she is taking on Moore Capito “to restore economic opportunity for our entire Appalachian community, make Medicare for All a reality, and bring our progressive values to the U.S. Senate.” Her platform prioritizes promoting economic diversity—including a just transition away from coal—addressing the opioid epidemic, updating the state’s infrastructure, and investing in education.

“No one person or election will solve the systemic injustices that plague our society,” said Swearengin. “But, together, we can stand in solidarity with the cause.”

“When we unite our fight for justice, we can accomplish our goals,” she added with a nod to the protests provoked by the police killing of George Floyd. “We can end systemic racism. We can guarantee healthcare as a human right. We can ensure every person has clean air to breathe and clean water to drink.”

West Virginia is a stunningly beautiful state (John Denver famously described it in his song Country Roads as “almost heaven”) but also one that has serious problems. It depended on the coal industry that is now in decline and the strip mining practices of the companies have flattened mountain tops and left ugly scars on the countryside and ruined the water. The remote Appalachian regions have extremely high rates of poverty and almost no services for the people living there.

Here is Swearengen having a one-on-one conversation with Bernie Sanders in 2017 describing her life and those of the people of her state and what made her want to run. It is very moving to listen to. She is the kind of person who should be in elected office.


  1. says

    I hate the way the press say “Stacey Abrams narrowly lost and election in which Kemp threw over 100,000 voters off the rolls.”
    No, it was a stolen election. Just say it.

  2. jrkrideau says

    @ Mano
    (For those who live outside the US and are baffled by the system here,

    Got it?)

    I have had people try to explain the Australian preferential voting system to me; it may be less complicated than the USA system—why primaries? They sound like something out of an opium dream.

    Still both pale in comparison to the complications of cricket.

  3. Some Old Programmer says

    jrkrideau @2
    Primaries are a way for political parties to control ballot access. To make it more convoluted, the political party for each state can set their own rules for appearing on a primary ballot for that party. So there are as many permutations as there are individual state political parties. You can run as an independent, but then you’ve got to deal with all the logistical elements yourself.

    For instance, in my state last time ’round, the Massachusetts Republican party had a caucus to vet access to the party’s primary ballot. I was paying attention, because a notorious homophobe met the required support threshold to appear on the Republican primary ballot as a candidate for governor. I don’t remember what the Dems did, but I don’t think they had a caucus.

    So primary elections are interesting. If you’re a registered member of a given party, you get a primary ballot for that party. Any non-partisan offices or issues appear on a different ballot, so you cast two ballots. Those that vote in a primary can have a disproportionate influence, because turnout is generally much lighter in a primary than a general election. This is also how marginal non-partisan issues can get passed. Predictably, primary elections skew towards the interests of those that have the ability and interest to vote.

  4. captainjack says

    I’m unaffiliated with a party in Colorado so I got both a Republican and Democratic ballot for the last presidential primary. (We vote primarily by mail.) I got to choose which ballot to return.

    From Ballotpedia,
    In Colorado, primaries are conducted on a semi-closed basis, meaning that only registered party members and unaffiliated voters may participate in a party’s primary (voters registered with other political parties cannot participate).
    Winners in Colorado’s primaries are determined via plurality vote, meaning that the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes cast wins the primary election even if he or she does not win an outright majority.
    In Colorado, parties conduct county, district, and state-level assemblies to designate candidates for the primary election ballot. Participation in these assemblies is restricted to registered party members. Candidates who do not seek nomination via the assembly process may petition for direct access to the primary ballot.

  5. jrkrideau says

    @ 3 Some Old Programmer & 4 captainjack

    I take back my earlier remark. Cricket is much more intuitive and rational. I still have not mastered why a state would register party affiliation and it goes downhill from here.

  6. anat says

    jrkrideay, compare to those states that do not have party registration, such as Washington. In Washington state the so-called primaries are not in fact a process to nominate the candidate from each party for each position, but instead a first round of the election -- anyone who wants to run for any elected position registers as a candidate, the 2 candidates with the highest votes in the ‘primary’ (held in August) go on to the general election (in November). If the position they are running for is considered ‘partisan’ the candidates may register their party preference. This does not mean they are actual members of said party, nor does it mean the party is willing to have them as their representatives, nor even that said party even exists -- it’s just whatever the candidate wrote on the form. (We had a sitting House representative claim to prefer ‘The GOP Party’, for instance).

    This means the parties have no control of the election process. The best they can do is to endorse candidates before the primaries. And it is pretty common to have multiple candidates for the same position, with the same party preference, each with endorsements from various known members of said party. Indeed, both major parties have tried to overturn the process in court, but failed.

    The result of this process is that for statewide positions, usually the candidates in the final round are a Democrat facing a Republican, but sometimes you get 2 from the same party -- and not necessarily the one with majority support -- if the votes of the supporters of the majority party are split among more candidates they can end up out of the final election. For races that are more local it is more common to end up with 2 from the same party, or candidates from 2 different parties where at least one is from a minor party.

    The most serious complaint I have seen against this process is that it allows for people to dishonestly claim party preference.

  7. jrkrideau says

    @ 6 anat
    The Australian preferential voting system is sounding more comprehensible all the time.

    I am used to the simple Canadian system where anybody interested buys a party membership and can vote for the local candidate for that party. Whoever wins the vote is the candidate.

    The various US rituals are bewildering. I mean, why would some states have party registration and some don’t? For that matter do states with party registration have it for all parties or just the Republicans and Democrats? If not why not?

    if only the Republicans and Democrats have legislated primaries, etc., is this not official government sanction for two parties?

    I suppose once one in the system for a while it makes some kind of sense but from the outside it is very confusing

  8. anat says

    jrkrideau, I do know one can be a registered ‘Green’ or ‘Libertarian’ in states with party registration, but I do not know how those parties nominate their candidates.

    As for why some states do not have party registration -- in Washington it is part of the local culture. For some reason Washingtonians do not want to associate themselves with parties. People who have only ever voted for Democratic candidates in decades say ‘I wouldn’t call myself a Democrat’. This created a problem with the presidential primaries, because the parties want some assurance that people are voting for the candidate in good faith (rather than to sabotage the rival party), but most of all, they want to harvest the addresses of their supporters so they can mail them to ask for donations. So in order to have our primary vote counted we had to mark on the outside of the envelope (we do all our voting by mail here) which party’s primaries we are voting in. Apparently this was enough to cause some people to refuse to participate.

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