This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

Note: WV Citizens for Clean Elections was instrumental in passage of the 527 law mentioned in this story.

November 9, 2006

Blankenship hurt GOP, chairman says

By Scott Finn
Staff writer

Call it the Blankenship backlash.

Many Democrats and Republicans alike were surprised by the results of Tuesday’s election in the House of Delegates races. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship reportedly spent close to $3 million in a bid to help Republicans take over the House.

Instead, Democrats gained four seats, increasing their majority to 72 of 100 seats.

In race after race where Blankenship spent money, the Republican he supported lost and the Democrat won.

Blankenship actually hurt Republicans Tuesday, said state Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney.

Campaign finance laws prevented the state GOP from working with or even talking to Blankenship, McKinney said. They couldn’t have stopped him if they tried.

“Democrats campaigned hard to link Republicans to Don Blankenship, as if that were a bad thing,” McKinney said.

“This election is one the like of which has never been seen. There’s nothing you can do. Even if you called him up and said, ‘I wish you’d back off,’ that would be coordinating with him and you can’t do that,” he said.

So far, Blankenship has reported spending more than $2 million to influence House races. But he told West Virginia Public Broadcasting the total was “probably closer to $3 million.”

What led to the failure of the unprecedented campaign by Blankenship? Larry LaCorte, a Democratic campaign consultant for Rainmaker Media, pointed to several factors:

  • Despite spending a lot of money, Blankenship’s campaign staff produced confusing and sometimes low-quality fliers, LaCorte said.

    In multi-member districts, Blankenship’s campaign sent out fliers that attacked several different members on several different issues. He would have been better to focus on one incumbent to overthrow and one Republican to support, LaCorte said.

    “By the time someone takes it from the mailbox and throws it in the trash can, that’s all the time you have to make an impact,” he said.

  • Democrats succeeded in making Blankenship the issue, and Blankenship helped out by starring in television ads responding to their attacks.

    Last year, the Legislature passed election reforms that required Blankenship to disclose his spending right away and put his name on every advertisement. That helped educate voters about who was behind the campaign, LaCorte said.

    “I think the 527 reform helped the Democratic Party tremendously,” he said. “The more people knew about Blankenship, the less they liked him, the less they would vote for his candidates, according to our polls.”

  • Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., in what may be his last campaign, and Gov. Joe Manchin campaigned hard to get out the Democratic vote.

    Also, Manchin announced his tax cut proposal the week before the election, undercutting one of Blankenship’s main messages.

    That same week, the Manchin administration also released a report on two miner deaths at a mine owned by a Massey Energy subsidiary. Administration officials denied that report’s release was politically motivated.

  • It was a good year for Democrats nationally, and state Democrats succeeded in getting people to vote straight tickets, many for the first time in their lives.

    In Kanawha County, the number of straight-ticket Democratic voters went from 9,318 in the last midterm election to 13,778 Tuesday, an increase of more than 4,400 votes. Republicans failed to increase their numbers significantly, with only 6,856 straight-ticket voters.

    Charleston City Councilman Dave Higgins helped chair a special committee set up to bring out the Democratic vote in Kanawha County. He said they encouraged straight-ticket voting through phone calls and signs.

    They also put up yard signs with “Vote Democrat” and a picture of a rooster, a Democratic symbol that appears on state ballots. They revived an old saying, “pull the rooster’s tail,” to encourage straight-ticket votes.

    McKinney said the national environment was toxic for Republicans this year because of issues like Iraq, and that filtered down to legislative races.

    There’s some evidence for that argument nationwide. The National Council of State Legislatures reports that Democrats won 275 state legislative seats nationwide.

    Higgins said national forces are only part of the story, though. For example, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., won re-election by a comfortable margin in Kanawha County and the 2nd Congressional District.

    The state Republican Party has a lot of work ahead, McKinney said. Republicans are farther from their goal of winning the state Legislature, and they have $125,000 in debts to pay.

    The GOP has learned there are no shortcuts to success, he said.

    “Hopefully, this will be a wake-up call for Republicans, that good things come only with hard work,” he said.

    To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.


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