MORGANTOWN, W.Va.—He’s a 32-year-old Marine Corps veteran known across West Virginia’s hills and valleys as a volunteer who digs ditches in flooded towns, who distributes coats to the homeless, who speaks about disenfranchisement of working people and despoilment of rivers by elected representatives beholden to corporate interests.
That’s the only way, one-by-one, doorstep-by-doorstep, day-by-day, a Democrat who openly identifies as a socialist can win any office in deep red West Virginia, and that’s the way Zach Shrewsbury says he’ll pull off one of 2024’s biggest electoral upsets when he defeats a heavily favored Republican—either Gov. Jim Justice or Rep. Alex Mooney (R-W.Va.)—to succeed Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in the U.S. Senate.
“For the first time in a long time, West Virginia, we have an election that can change the outcomes for our home, not the same-old, same-old of getting table scraps and crumbs from the political elite,” Mr. Shrewsbury said in a Morgantown co-op art gallery and music venue on Nov. 29.
“We have a battle to fight and a war to win,” he told about 75 campaign volunteers and supporters. “In the struggle for justice and equality, it is now our challenge to unite the power of the working class.”
A first-time candidate with a bootstrap grassroots campaign, few give Mr. Shrewsbury—or any Democrat—much chance.
Since 2014, when the state was led by a Democrat governor, Democrats controlled both state legislative chambers and had two Democrat U.S. Senators, West Virginia has been dominated by Republicans.
The GOP now has an iron trifecta in Charleston where it has built an 89–11 majority in the state House of Delegates and a 31–3 bloc hold in the Senate with two of those Democrats opting not to run for 2024 re-election.
West Virginia gave former President Donald Trump a margin of victory in 2020 only exceeded by Wyoming.
The lone statewide-elected Democrat is Mr. Manchin, a former governor who is not seeking a third Senate term and has set out to find a “middle road” in the nation’s ever-widening partisan divide, hinting he may run for president as an independent.
But if the state’s Democrats and Republicans agree about one thing, it is that Mr. Manchin’s search for the middle won’t find much traction on West Virginia’s country roads.
“I want to address the elephant in the room,” Democrat activist Shane Assadzandi said as he introduced Mr. Shrewsbury.
“I’m going to talk about Joe Manchin,” he continued. “Everything I hear says, ‘Oh no, Sen. Manchin, he was the most-electable candidate.’ Let me just nip that in the bud right now: Joe Manchin is not, was not, would not have been the most electable candidate in this race. Zach Shrewsbury is.”
There’s background chatter that the state’s Democrat committee is not enthused about Mr. Shrewsbury.
He’s an avowed progressive, too far Left for the state’s conservative, labor-led Democrats, and will be a sacrificial entry in a race determined in the May 2024 GOP primary between Gov. Justice and Mr. Mooney.
Untrue, West Virginia Democratic Party Executive Committee member Deb McCarthy said, noting until the Jan. 27 filing deadline, the party will not endorse any candidate.
After the deadline, she added: “Let the games begin.”
Ms. McCarthy, a retired pastor from Princeton, W.Va., who unsuccessfully ran for the House of Delegates in 2022, said Democrats can regain a foothold in a state they dominated for generations “by reaching out to people, by talking to the people, not in a partisan way, engaging as many people as possible.”
To that extent, “Zach is a candidate like no other—a big guy with a big heart, full of integrity; you can’t buy that, it’s not purchasable,” Ms. McCarthy said. “He has spent his life uplifting communities he has lived in.”
Pendulum Will Swing Back“We are on a journey with this campaign, our journey toward a prosperous future,” Mr. Shrewsbury said. “The country has seen the unequal distribution of wealth and power. In fact, we’ve probably seen it worse than most.
“It’s now our duty to challenge this injustice, to demand the workers of West Virginia receive our fair share,” he continued.
“Our labor is exploited. Your wages are [low]. You’re paid nothing. You have to choose between rent and groceries, choose between childcare and going to work. How long until we are fed up, West Virginia?”
Mr. Shrewsbury said in the Senate he would eliminate right-to-work laws, reverse the “environmental degradation of our beautiful state,” and “continue our natural heritage of powering the nation by bringing renewable jobs, manufacturing jobs to West Virginia.
“Bring it here and allow people working the fossil fuel industry, the coal miners, to transition to those jobs. That way, you will look out for the workers and not replace them.”
He espouses universal health care and child care. He will work for more affordable access to education, including vocational programs, he said.
“Enough is enough. It has to end; a whole generation struggling,” Mr. Shrewsbury said. “It’s up to us to rally and organize together.”
“There is a way for Democrats to win,” said Devon Tennant, a 2024 House of Delegates candidate. “I think people are starting to wake up and see Republicans are not for the people of West Virginia.”
He “respects” Mr. Manchin’s “search for the middle, as opposed to being Left or Right. I think bipartisanship is what West Virginians want. They don’t like labels.
“This is a good new beginning at the end of the Manchin era,” Mr. Tennant said.
Logan, who asked not to publish his last name, said there “absolutely is” a path to victory for West Virginia Democrats.
“People feel exploited. The system has been stacked against them and Republicans are beholden to a far-right national agenda. People are beginning to get wise.”
He said Bernie Sanders won the 2016 West Virginia Democrat presidential primary and the state has a long history of labor-versus-industry battles.
“The pendulum is swinging—it will swing back soon,” he said.
Former House Delegate and Democrat organizer Danielle Walker—a firebrand who doesn’t need a bullhorn—said if Republicans are expecting a roll-over next November, they’re in for a surprise.
“We no longer need to vote for the lesser of two evils,” she said. “Mountaineers are always free. Are you ready to fight? We are ready to fight for West By God Virginia.”