This article originally provided by
September 10, 2006
W.Va. Legislature Election Preview
House races center stage: Blankenship’s vow to unseat Dems
heats up usually sedate campaign
This report is the second of a three-part series.
If this were an ordinary year, Republicans could expect to pick up a few
seats in the West Virginia House of Delegates in November.
But this is no ordinary election. This year, Massey Energy CEO Don
Blankenship has promised to spend “whatever it takes” to help Republicans win
the House of Delegates.
That’s going to be an uphill battle. Right now, the GOP holds only 32 of 100
seats. They would have to retain all their current seats and pick up 19 more to
become the majority party.
But it certainly isn’t impossible, political insiders say. Never before has a
wealthy individual become this involved in trying to defeat members of the state
“This is very novel on the national level,” said Robert Rupp, a history
professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College and member of the state Election
Commission. “It’s probably been done, but it’s never been done on such a public
So far, the state Democratic Party has responded by attacking Blankenship
himself. But several political watchers say Democrats should be more focused on
getting out their own message and getting voters to the polls.
Blankenship is planning a massive campaign to identify and target voters who
are likely to throw out Democrats. Whether it will work or backfire is still
“It would take the perfect storm. But it absolutely is possible,” said Gary
Abernathy, former director of the state GOP and a political consultant to
several Republicans, including U.S. Senate candidate John Raese.
“If we don’t do it this year, when are we going to be able to do it again?
Not in a generation,” Abernathy said.
Dems playing defense
The Sunday Gazette-Mail conducted its own analysis of House races and found
plenty of opportunities for Republicans to pick up seats. The analysis is based
on campaign finance records, previous election results and interviews with
In 12 races, Republicans have an even chance to win a seat currently held by
Democrats, according to the analysis. Democrats have only two such chances to
take over a Republican seat.
The biggest opportunities for Republicans are in the Eastern Panhandle and
Raleigh, Cabell and Kanawha counties.
In the Eastern Panhandle, a tide of Republican-leaning suburbanites is moving
in from the Washington, D.C., area. The area went big for Republicans in 2004,
with the exception of Gov. Joe Manchin. They even preferred a 19-year-old
Republican college student over longtime Democratic Agriculture Commissioner Gus
Delegates Locke Wysong and Bob Tabb, both D-Jefferson, barely won two years
ago and face well-financed Republican challengers this year.
In Raleigh County, two of the county’s top vote-getting Democrats are leaving
office: House Speaker Bob Kiss and Delegate Sally Susman, who lost a primary
race for state Senate. Republicans in that county are highly organized and the
county went for President Bush by a larger margin than the rest of the state.
They’re hoping to pick up two or perhaps three seats in this district.
In Cabell County, Democratic Delegate Dale Stephens barely won his seat two
years ago and faces tough competition from a well-known name — Republican Tommy
Smirl, son of longtime former Delegate Jody Smirl, R-Cabell. Tommy Smirl
returned Blankenship’s $1,000 donation, as did Cabell County Republican Senate
candidate Tom Scott.
Republicans also are financing a candidate to unseat one of the three
Democrats in the 15th District, which includes parts of Cabell and Lincoln
counties. Delegates Jim Morgan and Margarette Leach are the most vulnerable,
according to past election returns.
In Kanawha County, Republicans could knock off at least one and up to three
Democrats in a seven-member district that includes most of Charleston, St.
Albans and the eastern part of Kanawha County.
Several Democrats might be attacked for their votes on a 911 bill that
increased cell phone fees in Kanawha County. Looking at historical voting
patterns, the most vulnerable incumbents are Delegates Bonnie Brown and Sharon
Spencer, but Delegates Bobbie Hatfield, Danny Wells and even House Judiciary
Chairman Jon Amores should expect tough races, too, political watchers said.
Democrats have at least two opportunities to pick up Republican seats. In
Ohio County, former Delegate Tal Hutchins, D-Ohio, and union official Orphy
Klempa are in a tight race with businessman and former state GOP treasurer Scott
Reed for the seat being vacated by Delegate Chris Wakim, R-Ohio, as he runs for
In Monongalia County, former Democratic Delegate Barbara Fleischauer has
raised a lot of money in an effort to regain her seat. Delegate Cindy Frich,
R-Monongalia, barely won re-election in 2004 but has proven an effective
campaigner. Several other Republicans and Democratic lawyer and former WVU
football player Alex Shook also are vying for seats.
A nasty campaign
In the other state races, Democrats are favored to win another 12 seats, but
the Republican candidate still could win, according to the Gazette-Mail
To get to a majority, Republicans have to win all the races where they are
favored, every “toss up” seat and half the seats where Democrats are favored to
It’s more likely that the GOP will make significant gains in the House but
fall short of a majority, several political observers said.
Tom Susman, a political consultant and former delegate, said he thinks
Republicans will end up with between 40 and 45 seats after the election.
Susman’s mother is Delegate Sally Susman and his father is former state Sen.
Alan Susman, D-Raleigh.
The Republicans would have won some seats this election anyway, he said. The
number of registered Republicans is increasing faster than the number of
Democrats, especially in the fast-growing Eastern Panhandle.
In 2004, the GOP picked up only one seat in the House in a year when they won
the presidency, three state Senate seats and two statewide offices in West
Virginia. It is widely believed they would have won more House races if state
GOP chairman Kris Warner had spent less money and time on his brother Monty’s
failed gubernatorial campaign.
With Blankenship funding an independent campaign, Republicans can expect to
pick up those seats they narrowly lost in 2004, several open seats and even pick
off some incumbent Democrats, Susman said.
Here’s how it will happen, Susman said: Blankenship has hired people to go
door to door to survey likely voters. They will identify which issues those
voters care about and send them literature targeted to those issues.
The voters who seem likely to vote for Blankenship’s preferred candidate will
be targeted on election day through a massive get-out-the-vote campaign, like
political parties have done in the past.
Susman expects the races to get nasty. They won’t just center on issues like
the food tax, which Blankenship opposes. He expects mailings on gay marriage and
abortion to circulate before the election.
“You’ll see fliers with two men holding hands,” Susman said. He predicted the
fliers will falsely accuse Democrats of supporting gay marriage.
“I think they were set up for this during the legislative session,” he said.
“It was well coordinated.”
Earlier this year, House Republicans forced lawmakers to vote on proposed
constitutional amendments to forbid gay marriage.
House Democratic leaders said the amendment was not necessary because gay
marriage is illegal in the state. The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly
for the Defense of Marriage Act in the 1990s.
Democrats also were trying to prevent a repeat of 2004, when ballot measures
on gay marriage propelled Republican voters to the polls in many states.
House Republicans also tried to bring out bills that were stuck in committees
on issues such as abortion.
Currently, no one under 18 can get an abortion without telling her parents
unless she receives a waiver from an independent doctor or a judge. A bill
supported by West Virginians for Life would have eliminated the ability of a
doctor to give that waiver.
Some Democrats opposed the abortion bill, saying it could force young victims
of incest to tell their abusers about the pregnancy. Other Democrats supported
the bill, but they refused to vote against their party’s leadership on the
grounds that all bills should be vetted through the committee process before
coming to the floor.
Now, those issues are part of Blankenship’s campaign to throw Democrats out.
Democrats have no choice but to educate voters about why they made those
votes, Susman said. They also should focus on the state’s improving economy,
Democratic reform of the workers’ compensation system, and a record budget
surplus that allowed lawmakers to pay off almost $1 billion in debts.
“You have to deal with those core issues, and I don’t see where they have a
coordinated message on that,” Susman said. “There is no positive message.”
Complicating matters is a fierce race to replace Kiss as the Speaker of the
House. Business-supported Delegate Scott Varner, D-Marshall, and labor-supported
Delegate Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, already are battling it out. The sniping
between the two Democratic factions could help Republican candidates.
A new ballgame
What Democrats should not focus upon, Susman said, is Blankenship himself. He
may be unpopular in southern West Virginia where he is known best, but many
voters don’t know who he is and others don’t care, Susman said.
Abernathy agreed that the current state Democratic strategy is a mistake.
“It doesn’t matter who pays for the ads. They don’t focus on it. The general
voting population watches the ads themselves,” Abernathy said.
Nonpresidential-year elections usually feature low voter turnout, and as of
today, conventional wisdom holds that the only close congressional race is in
northern West Virginia between Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va. and Wakim.
If it becomes a low-turnout election year, the side that gets its own people
to the polls wins. Abernathy expects Blankenship to outspend the 2004 Bush
campaign, which mounted a very effective get-out-the-vote effort.
Democrats will need money to counter Blankenship attacks, but most delegates
don’t have very much, and neither does the state party.
The leading state Democrat with big pockets is Manchin himself, who has a
campaign war chest of more than $1 million.
Manchin is refusing to say how much, if any, of that money he will spend on
behalf of Democratic candidates this fall.
“This governor is committed to traveling all across the state and getting the
word out on the great work our legislators are doing,” said Manchin spokesman
“During the past 20 months, our legislators have taken many courageous steps
to put West Virginia on better financial footing and making West Virginia more
economically competitive for new job growth,” Hunter said.
Political power and money in West Virginia is concentrated in the hands of
these two individuals, Manchin and Blankenship, while both parties are nearly
broke, Rupp said.
He wondered if the state is entering a new era in politics, one where
extremely wealthy individuals and interest groups completely bypass political
parties and even candidates to run their own campaigns.
“It’s a whole new ballgame in West Virginia politics,” he said.
Staff writer Tom Searls contributed to this report. To contact staff
writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.
Toss up races (14 total) Possible Democratic
or GOP District Counties Candidates Gain
3rd Ohio Reed, Klempa, Hutchins D
15th Cabell/Lincoln Leach* vs. Miller R
16th Cabell/Wayne Stephens* vs. Smirl R
27th Raleigh/Summers Toss up/open seat R
27th Raleigh/Summers Toss up/open seat R
30th Kanawha Brown* vs. Stuart R
30th Kanawha Spencer* vs. Raines R
30th Kanawha Guthrie vs. other Republican R
40th Barbour/Upshur Poling* vs.Tenney R
41st Harrison/Marion Milney* vs. Wolfe R
44th Monongalia Frich** vs.Fleischaeur D
44th Monongalia Toss up/open seat R
56th Jefferson/Berkeley Tabb* vs. Wilbourne R
58th Jefferson Wysong* vs. Adams R
Leans Democratic (12)
4th Marshall Tucker
13th Putnam/Mason/Jackson Martin
15th Cabell/Lincoln Morgan
26th Monroe/Summers Crosier
27th Raleigh/Summers Mahan
30th Kanawha Wells
30th Kanawha Hatfield
37th Randolph/Pocahontas Hartman
41st Harrison/Marion Cann
41st Harrison/Marion Fragale
43rd Marion/Monongalia Longstreth
57th Jefferson Doyle
(All are incumbent Democrats)
Leans Republican (5)
16th Cabell/Wayne Howard
42nd Taylor/Marion/Monongalia Tansill
46th Tucker/Preston Stevens
50th Hampshire/Mineral Rowan
53rd Berkeley Miller
(All are incumbent Republicans)
(*incumbent Democrat; **incumbent Republican)