I do believe the realignment is real in those areas. The national Dem party has become so viscerally hostile not only to coal, but to the cultural values of this region. 2000 was seemingly a fluke given the historical preferences, 2004 was a validation that even though usually Dem, they will support a GOP incumbent, but 2008 was a trend and 2012 was a pretty clear-cut realignment. While they may be more sympathetic to a White Dem, I think the horses are out of the proverbial barn.
WV was moving back towards the GOP at the legislative level in the early ‘70s, but Watergate halted the progress (as it did in most other Southern states), but we’re now more deeply enmeshed there than in 1972. Only the power of incumbency for the Dems there and in parts of KY keep them in office, and that is crumbling. I think once the GOP goes above majority status in the KY House & WV House, which may happen in the next cycle, the near-perpetual Dem lock on the statewide offices will finally fall across the board.
I don’t think that 2004 showed movement towards the GOP in eastern KY: 4 counties went from Gore to Bush, but 6 others went from Bush to Kerry. There was a bit of movement towards the GOP in 2008 but the biggest movement was in 2012. I don’t know if it’s a case of the dam bursting or just a temporary, Obama-caused blip. I wouldn’t throw out that 2004 election map yet, since that could be the paradigm we’re facing 4 years from now.
And the biggest problem will continue to be at the local and congressional level, not at the presidential level. The RATs won’t be nominating an Obama type for Congress in Coal Country, and a lot of those counties still will be voting Democrat reflexively for non-presidential races.
In 2010, Chandler (D) barely won re-election by just a few hundred votes to Republican Andy Barr. The Democrats’ influence in the Kentucky House redrew the 6th Congressional district to supposedly be more favorable to Chandler by putting more traditionally Democrat leaning counties into the district and moved more conservative counties out. A Republican State Senator, Alice Forgy Kerr (Chandler’s opponent in his first election to the Congressional seat) even called it the “Ben Chandler Lifetime Employment Act”. However, Chandler lost the new counties to his district that were supposed to be helpful to him and he lost the election to Barr in the rematch - that is evidence to suggest you have the right analysis on that. Barr and the NRCC did a bang up job on making coal an issue - not just appealing to the new Eastern Kentucky counties in the district, but also explaining how it affects the broader economy and other industries jobs as well - including car sales, grocery sales, etc. so that the coal issue also would relate to the people in the core central area part of the district that coal would not have normally been an issue that would be effective. Really quite an impressive strategy. It was a very effective campaign and should have been the way the national campaign was run. If Obama had been run against nationally the way he was in the 6th congressional district I believe it would have been far more effective - Simplifying the issues and showing people how it directly affects them and their families. See some examples below: