This article originally provided by The Sunday Gazette-Mail

November 5, 2006

Blankenship money shakes up sleepy races

Turnout could determine control of Legislature

By Scott Finn
Staff writer

In West Virginia, races for the House of Delegates are usually sleepy affairs, where name recognition and personal connections decide who wins.

But this year is different.

Massey Energy chief executive Don Blankenship has poured about $2 million into the mix, the equivalent of $50,000 for each of the 41 Republicans supported by his independent campaign. His fliers, television and radio ads are everywhere, and his get-out-the-vote effort is promising to bring Republican-friendly voters to the polls.

Including Blankenship’s spending, some Democrats in the House of Delegates are being outspent more than two to one.

But a Republican takeover of the House of Delegates is still a tall order. Right now, the GOP holds only 32 of 100 House of Delegates seats.

Not surprisingly, Democrats and Republicans are predicting completely different results in Tuesday’s elections.

Republicans say the Blankenship campaign will turn out their voters in unprecedented numbers on Tuesday, surprising incumbents and pundits alike. Some think they can actually win the House, while others think they can turn 15 seats and come within a hair’s breadth of control.

Democrats say that Blankenship’s campaign has left voters cold. On the national level, this is a Democratic year, they say, and that feeling will help all Democrats on the ticket. Most Democrats will concede in private that they will lose House seats, but maybe only as few as three to five.

Even if they don’t win the House of Delegates, Republicans could tip the balance of power in the race for House speaker. House Majority Whip Scott Varner, D-Marshall, is squaring off against Delegate Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, to replace retiring Speaker Bob Kiss, D-Raleigh. Their supporters are evenly divided now, but no one knows how that will look if several Democrats are knocked off by Republican challengers.

Meanwhile, Democrats have high hopes for gaining between two and five seats in the 34-member state Senate and increasing their 21-13 majority. Blankenship hasn’t invested heavily in Senate races, making Republicans less optimistic about gains.

Last week, Gov. Joe Manchin threw an October surprise into the election by announcing a series of proposed tax cuts, including a reduction of the food tax from 5 cents to 3 cents, a doubling of a tax credit for seniors who own their own homes and cuts in two business taxes.

Republicans criticized the timing of that announcement, as well as the release of a report Thursday into two deaths at a Massey-owned mine.

Control of the Legislature will be decided in several key areas of the state where the battle has raged fiercely for months — places like Raleigh County, the Eastern Panhandle, Cabell and Wayne counties, and the Kanawha Valley — according to political consultants for both parties.

Raleigh County

Raleigh County may be the home of Sen. Robert Byrd, but it has turned increasingly Republican in recent elections.

In 2002, residents elected Republican Sen. Russ Weeks, who ran as a social conservative. He was heavily outspent, but his grass-roots campaign overthrew Senate Judiciary Chairman Bill Wooten.

In 2004, Raleigh County voted overwhelmingly for President Bush and preferred a local Republican over native son and longtime Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall.

This year, two of the county’s three Democratic delegates are resigning: Kiss and Sally Susman, who mounted an unsuccessful primary bid for state Senate.

Republicans think they can fill both those seats with their candidates, said Joe Long, Raleigh County Republican chairman. One GOP candidate, Chuck Carpenter, came close in previous elections and is mounting a particularly vigorous campaign, Long said.

“We think in Raleigh County, Republicans might have a majority of candidates going to the Legislature,” Long said.

Not so fast, says Jack Roop, a former Democratic member of the House of Delegates from Raleigh County.

Roop admits that Republicans are energized in Raleigh County. But he thinks county Democrats will turn out to support Byrd.

“They want to show that they’re supporting him. They’d come out even if no one was running against him,” Roop said.

Weeks also faces a tough challenge from businessman and greyhound breeder Mike Green. Green spent a lot of his own money to win the Democratic primary over Susman and Wooten. But he has spent much less since the primary, leading observers to think Weeks’ ground campaign could triumph again.

One final Raleigh County note: For unknown reasons, incumbent Delegate Ron Thompson (no relation to Delegate Rick Thompson) is barely campaigning this year, Roop said.

Eastern Panhandle

Another area of the state that is increasingly friendly GOP turf is the fast-growing Eastern Panhandle.

Residents there have more in common with suburbanites in Virginia and Maryland than residents of Wheeling, Williamson or Charleston.

Their growth has spurred a series of problems, from traffic congestion to teacher shortages, to which the state Legislature has been slow to respond, said Chris Strovel, news director of WEPM radio in Martinsburg.

Many residents feel the wealth of their area is being sucked up by the state government and redistributed to other parts of the state, he said. Candidates in both parties are sounding an anti-Charleston theme, especially the Republicans.

“The general message is, ‘We’re going to go to Charleston and take what’s ours,’” Strovel said.

Republicans are targeting three Jefferson County Democrats in the House of Delegates: Bob Tabb, Locke Wysong and John Doyle. Of the three, Tabb and Wysong are probably the most vulnerable, Strovel said.

In Tabb’s race, Blankenship is running ads accusing him of supporting “secret abortions.” Tabb denied this, but the issue resonates with some area voters, Strovel said.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, also faces a strong challenge this year by Republican Jerry Mays. Strovel said he thinks Unger will be able to survive, especially if turnout is low among the newcomers to the county. (A disclaimer: Unger works as a part-time host at the same station as Strovel.)

“There are enough of the old guard, instead of the transplanted McMansion folks, that he’s still popular,” Strovel said.

Cabell and Wayne

It’s been a long time since a Republican candidate for the House of Delegates was even considered competitive in Wayne County.

The fact that Republican Lisa Peana is seen as a serious threat to two powerful House Democrats is a testament to Blankenship’s money, said Brian Sizemore, managing editor of the Wayne County News.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, is being hammered on social issues like abortion, Sizemore said. Perdue is chairman of the Health and Human Resources Committee and is being criticized in one newspaper advertisement for not putting enough anti-abortion bills on the committee’s agenda.

“Everyone here has the old Christian values, and that sort of thing hits home for them,” Sizemore said.

Still, Sizemore said he expects both Perdue and Rick Thompson, the other Democrat, to get re-elected. Wayne County has voted overwhelmingly Democratic for as long as anyone can remember. Besides, a lot of people know Perdue personally, he said.

“They love Don down in Wayne County. I think Lisa may come close, but I don’t see her winning,” he said.

In neighboring Cabell County, Democrats are playing offense in one House district and defense in another.

In the 16th District, Democratic newcomer Doug Reynolds is running a strong campaign, said Charleston Daily Mail columnist Dave Peyton, who lives outside Huntington.

Reynolds is getting help from some big names, including former Marshall football coach Bob Pruett and Reynolds’ father, Huntington businessman and philanthropist Marshall Reynolds.

“Reynolds is focusing on his plans to overcome the drug problem, which is a hot issue in Cabell County,” Peyton said. There was a drug-related triple murder in Huntington last year, and drug-related crime is skyrocketing in the area, Peyton said.

Reynolds’ campaign is bad news for at least one of three incumbents, he said. Republican Kelli Sobonya is probably safe, leaving Democrat Dale Stephens and Republican Greg Howard to battle it out for the last spot, he said.

In the 15th District, which includes parts of Cabell and Lincoln Counties, Blankenship has targeted two Democrats: Margarette Leach and Jim Morgan.

Leach’s health problems have made it more difficult for her to campaign, Peyton said. Meanwhile, Republican Carol Miller, whose husband owns Dutch Miller Chevrolet in Huntington, is running on the same issues as Blankenship, Peyton said, and could unseat one of the three Democrats in the district.

In the state Senate, two closely matched adversaries with medical ties find themselves in a rematch. Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, who is executive director of the West Virginia State Medical Association, faces local doctor Tom Scott for the second time. Jenkins has been criticized for sponsoring a bill to help his father’s retirement home. Again, turnout in the House of Delegates races could tip this race.

Kanawha Valley

Democrats have traditionally dominated in Kanawha County, but Republicans are usually competitive. That seems to be the case this year as well.

In the House of Delegates, Republicans are confident they can take at least one of the seven seats held by Democrats in the sprawling 30th District.

Republican candidate Mike Stuart has outspent most of his Democratic competitors, and Republican Phil Raines also has spent more than average on his campaign.

Meanwhile, Blankenship has beat up on the six incumbent Democrats, stressing a controversial vote over drunken driving. The Democrats have fought back with a combined advertising response.

In Kanawha County’s two Senate races, Democrats are seen as favorites by most observers. Sen. Brooks McCabe appears to be coasting to another four-year term.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping they can pick up the seat of retiring Republican Steve Harrison. Candidate Erik Wells has run positive commercials in the last week of the campaign highlighting his military service. His name recognition is high from his days as a television news anchor and from his 2004 campaign against Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, where Wells lost overall but beat Capito in her home of Kanawha County.

Wells’ opponent, former WVU football standout Mark Plants, has focused on his local roots and has raised more money than Wells in recent weeks, but most observers believe it won’t be enough.

In what is likely to be one of the closer Senate races Tuesday, both candidates in the 4th Senatorial District say they like their chances for victory.

Democrat Jim Lees, an attorney with two maverick campaigns for governor under his belt, said he has not done any opinion polling since an August survey showed him with a 10 percentage-point lead, but said he is confident that margin hasn’t slipped.

Delegate Mike Hall, R-Putnam, a six-term delegate, said the race is a clear choice between himself, the pro-business candidate, and trial lawyer Lees.

“He appears to have to take a poll to figure out what to say to the public,” Hall said.

Lees said he is amused by Hall’s efforts to imply that being a trial lawyer is a bad thing, noting that he has gone to trial on occasion to challenge government abuse, including overturning an illegal pay raise legislators gave themselves.

Hall complained that Lees’ most recent ads criticize him for voting for a House resolution supporting a now-defunct Bush administration plan to allow younger workers to invest a small portion of their pensions in personal savings accounts, while Lees is representing teachers who want to stay in such a plan under the Teachers Defined Contribution retirement plan.

“It’s pretty clear we’re worlds apart on the issues,” Hall said.

These are only some of the areas to watch on election night. House of Delegate races in rural areas of the state, such as Randolph, Barbour and Taylor counties, could provide some surprises, campaign consultants say.

Democrats are hoping to pick up Republican House of Delegate seats in Monongalia and Ohio counties, too. If they can, it could be a sign that Republicans hopes of making significant gains in the Legislature have been dashed once again.

But if Republicans can knock off incumbents in places like Wayne County, it could be a long night for the Democrats.

And observers say races involving two Senate incumbents — Randy White, D-Webster, and Jesse Guills, R-Greenbrier — could go either way. White is recovering from the publication of private nude photos of himself by WCHS-TV. Guills is a first-term lawyer facing former state Sen. Fred Parker, D-Monroe, a retired schoolteacher.

It’s obvious but true: The election results hinge on who turns out Tuesday, Roop said. Will Blankenship’s get-out-the-vote machine surprise everyone? Or will Democrats come out to support Byrd and oppose the Iraq war?

“I think a lot of times the Democrats just don’t get out and vote. But with the shape of the country right now, they’re motivated,” Roop said.

Staff writer Phil Kabler contributed to this report. To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

Voter-Owned Elections

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