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Race to head West Virginia Republican Party heats up


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — One candidate recently called Democrats “godless.” The other has taken heat for working for a firm that supports them.

Welcome to the race for chairmanship of the West Virginia Republican Party.

Tom O’Neill, left, and Melody Potter

Current West Virginia representative to the Republican National Committee, Melody Potter, is running against Tom O’Neill, an attorney for Spilman, Thomas and Battle and a lobbyist with Orion Strategies. The winner will take Conrad Lucas’ seat at the helm of the state party.

While Potter’s religiously driven agenda has stoked fears that she might divide the party, some have criticized O’Neill’s ties to Orion Strategies, which provided political consulting services to a number of state Democrats, such as Rod Snyder, who lost a tight race to Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, in 2016.

At a GOP dinner two weeks ago, Potter said politicians need to adhere to biblical values and that Democrats are godless.

“We are Republicans for a reason, because we are totally the opposite of the Democrats,” she said. “You all know that, a few years ago at the Democrat convention, they took God out of their platform. And I’m going to make a general statement: They are godless. That’s one of the reasons why our nation is in the shape that it is in — why our state is in the shape that it’s in.”

She went on to mention the need to bring biblical values and Christian principles back into American politics.

“I don’t care what anybody says, our country was founded on Christian-Judeo values, those are the foundations that work,” she said.

Lucas endorsed Potter for the position. However, he said he did so before O’Neill announced his candidacy, and is endorsing either. Lucas is leaving the seat to mount a congressional run in the 3rd District.

Potter stood by her remarks in an interview Wednesday. She said that, if elected, she would bring geographic diversity to the party, give the Northern and Eastern parts of the state more of a voice, boost fundraising efforts, and ensure that Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, loses his 2018 re-election bid.

Meanwhile, her opponent’s work for Orion could muddle his chances. He lobbies for the firm, which also provides a number of other political consulting services. Campaign finance reports show that Snyder paid thousands of dollars to Orion for ad buys, consulting, digital advertising and direct mail, and research. The firm has targeted Republicans in other races, as well.

During the Snyder-Moore race, Snyder and his campaign called out Moore, who sang in the punk-rock band Rattler as “Rick Rattler,” leading to condemnation from the state Democratic Party for what its officials claim were the promotion of drug use, violence and assault against women. Moore won the race by 96 votes of 8,364 ballots cast.

O’Neill said he had no involvement in that race, has not done any electioneering work for the firm and has never worked against Republicans in his career.

“I have never, in my entire life, done any work against a Republican candidate for office — except one time, when I ran against one in a primary,” he said. “Other than that, I’ve never worked against a Republican candidate for office. Period. End of story.”

Snyder said Wednesday he did not work with O’Neill whatsoever on his campaign.

Moore said he does not know O’Neill personally and has no idea who exactly did what work at the eight-person firm, but at the end of the day, he supports Potter.

“Melody Potter is tried-and-true Republican and conservative,” he said. “I’ve never met Tom O’Neill, and I can’t point to one thing or issue that he’s worked on on behalf of the GOP.”

The candidate herself shared similar words.

“I’ve known Tom for quite a while. I just wonder where Tom has been the past several years, but I don’t dislike Tom,” Potter said.

She also jabbed at him for his work with Orion.

“I’ve never supported a Democrat, I’ve never worked for a firm that supports Democrats, I’ve never voted for a Democrat, and I think the rules are a little different for a state party chairman, whether they think they have been involved in this or not,” she said.

Responding to her remark, O’Neill said Potter is likely to use her chairman seat to forward her own policy agenda, not that of the party, a charge Potter denied. As evidence, he pointed to a letter he claimed Potter wrote during the 2017 legislative session, which is marked as authored by the state GOP Party Platform Committee, of which Potter serves. That letter condemns Republicans who voted in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.

“It’s certainly unbecoming of a senior leader in the party to so publicly criticize and condemn members of our own party and the Legislature for a policy difference like she did with the medical marijuana issue last year, which I have no doubt she’d do again any time the Legislature does something she personally doesn’t like,” O’Neill said.

Potter denied having authored the letter, which cites the party platform and the Bible in its condemnation of the Republicans who voted yes.

A spokesman for Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said the congressman is not endorsing either candidate in the race. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., could not be reached for comment.

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., endorsed Potter for the position.

“Melody Potter has served West Virginians well as national committeewoman and will be an excellent state party chairman,” Mooney said. “Personally, I appreciate her support and encouragement in my hard-fought campaigns for Congress. I am proud to endorse her.”

On the other hand, Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee member Monty Warner sent an email to the state party members endorsing O’Neill.

The election is scheduled to be held Jan. 6.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at [email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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