This article originally provided by The Sunday Gazette-Mail

September 10, 2006

W.Va. Legislature Election Preview

House races center stage: Blankenship’s vow to unseat Dems heats up usually sedate campaign

By Scott Finn
Staff writer

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 Legislature.

“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 level.”

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 anybody’s guess.

“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 political insiders.

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 Douglass.

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 Congress.

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 analysis.

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 win.

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 Tom Hunter.

“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.

House races

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)


Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246