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Balance of Power: West Virginia Senate Races Attract Attention of Third-Party PACS

CHARLESTON — Democrats see an opportunity to return the West Virginia Senate back to blue. Republicans see opportunities to maintain their majority and possibly pick up seats.

Political action committees funded by both sides are pouring money into those efforts, flooding voters with attack ads targeted at specific candidates.

Such is the state of Election 2020 in West Virginia.

Every election cycle, half of the state Senate is up for election, with 17 of 34 seats in play. Only two seats are unopposed this year: state Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, and Wyoming County Circuit Clerk David “Bugs” Stover who defeated state Sen. Sue Cline in the June 9 Republican primary.

Republicans tied with Democrats in 2014 in a 17-17 split, but the defection of former Wyoming County senator Daniel Hall gave the GOP an 18-16 majority. The Republican majority grew to 22 members after the 2016 elections, but after the 2018 elections Republicans lost two seats, bringing the balance of power to 20 Republican seats and 14 Democratic seats.

State Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and is considered to be a contender for the title of senate president and lieutenant governor should Republicans keep the majority after the Nov. 3 general election. Blair doesn’t have a Democratic Party challenger, though he will face off against Mountain Party candidate Donald Kinnie.

Blair is optimistic that Senate Republicans can not only maintain their 20-14 majority, but he believes they can return to the 22-12 majority they had in 2017 and possibly add an additional pick-up.

Blair cited a strong top of the ticket with large support by West Virginians for Republican President Donald Trump, U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., the state’s Republican delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Republican Gov. Jim Justice.

“If I had to make a prediction on this, I think when the dust is settled that we’re going to be at 22 or 23 (seats) by the end of the night,” Blair said.

“There will be a huge Trump turnout in this state. That makes a difference in these races.”

Blair and the West Virginia Republican Senate Committee have spent the last few months working with Republican incumbents, former GOP lawmakers looking for a comeback, and new faces to help them win in November. On Oct. 15, Republican senators and senate candidates joined Justice on the north steps of the State Capitol Building to pledge additional funding in 2021 for broadband expansion.

Blair said the Democratic candidates for Senate have gone negative.

“They’re not talking about what they would actually do to make our state better,” Blair said.

“That’s one of the proudest things I’ve got to say about our candidates on the Republican side that are running for Senate. They’re talking about what they can do to make this state better. That’s why they’re incredible.”

The Democratic Senate Caucus sees things differently. State Sen. Rich Lindsay, D-Kanawha, said the caucus went on a recruitment effort to find quality candidates that could really make a difference if elected.

“We’ve got a great crop of candidates in all the districts we’re running candidates in,” Lindsay said. “The way I see it, we’re competitive in all our races. We just did a good job of recruiting folks who wanted to run and make a difference in West Virginia. I feel good about our prospects on election night.”

The fight between the Republicans and Democrats over the makeup of the Senate has drawn the attention of independent political action committees. West Virginia’s Future PAC has raised $181,000 on the most recent campaign finance report year-to-date. The PAC spent $89,708 on attack pieces targeting Democratic Senate candidates as “more liberal than a West Virginian should be.”

West Virginia’s Future PAC’s largest donation was $100,000 from the Coalition for a Stronger West Virginia Inc., founded by Republican operative Greg Thomas and Morgantown attorney Patrick Esposito. The largest spender by far is Mountain State Values, a PAC funded exclusively by labor groups such as trade and teachers’ unions. According to the most recent campaign finance report available, the PAC raised $4.21 million year-to-date and spent $3.97 million on ads and mailers supporting Democratic candidates and attacking Republicans.

The West Virginia State Building and Construction Trades Council donated $1.5 million to Mountain State Values between July and September. IUOE Local 132 donated $250,000 and AFT Solidarity, the national PAC for the American Federation of Teachers, donated $200,000 – both donations in September.

This isn’t the first time that unions have spent big in legislative races since Republicans grabbed the majority and repealed the prevailing wage on public contracts, and also passed Right to Work.

West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported that Mountain State Values received $1.8 million during the 2018 midterm elections from union groups to attack Republican candidates. A similar group – West Virginia Family Values – raised $2.7 million during the 2016 election cycle for the same goal.

Blair said he believes West Virginia voters see through the union efforts with Mountain State Values, pointing to the last two election cycles as examples of their failure to flip the Senate.

“They’re dumping over $4 million into these Senate races and virtually nothing into the (House of Delegates) races, so they’re focused on trying to flip the Senate to being back the way it was,” Blair said. “I don’t think that’s going to happen. The voters are going to see through the out-of-state money and the workers’ money being wasted on this.”

Lindsay said the PAC spending has some influence on voters that are bombarded with ads, TV and radio commercials, and mailboxes stuffed with mailers. But Lindsay believes voters are more influenced by candidates making face-to-face contact and telling their stories and how they plan to improve the state.

“I think on both sides they probably have some impact, but at the end of the day it comes down to the candidates,” Lindsay said. “We just have good candidates, good-working West Virginians … We just have a good group of people. Do they have an impact? Probably. Since the days of (Don) Blankenship for several cycles you had these third-party outfits trying to influence the race. At the end of the day, it comes down to the candidate and how hard he or she works.”

A request for comment from Mountain State Values and West Virginia’s Future was not returned.

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