WHEELING, W.Va. – Coal, gambling and labor interests are among those seeking to influence West Virginia legislative races with more than $1.6 million in independent campaign expenditures this election cycle.
Independent expenditures are those made in support of or against a specific candidate for public office, by organizations that may have a political agenda but are not acting in concert with any candidate, their authorized committee or a political party. Per a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, there is no limit on individual contributions to or spending by organizations making independent expenditures, unlike donations made to specific candidates, which may not exceed $1,000.
It’s unknown exactly how much of the independent spending has been devoted to negative advertising, though it seems clear the amount is significant. Only some of the campaign finance reports filed with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office specify whether an expense was made in support of or in opposition to a particular candidate.
Steve White, director of the West Virginia Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation – which is supporting several Democrat candidates for the Legislature this year, including Delegate Phil Diserio, D-Brooke – said his group has spent more money in this election than in years past, as a defensive move in response to out-of-state money flowing into the state to attack candidates they support – much of which he believes is not being properly reported.
“It’s money we don’t want to spend this way, but politics is just a civilized form of war, and we don’t want to go into battle without arms,” White said, adding he believes independent spending will only increase during each subsequent election as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Groups making independent expenditures on communications referring to candidates in local races include Honest West Virginians, Moving West Virginia Forward, West Virginia First, Protect West Virginia, West Virginia Building and Construction Trades and West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.
Labor groups make up the bulk of funding for the Honest West Virginians, which reported almost $900,000 in contributions of $250 or greater this year.
The West Virginia AFL-CIO is the organization’s largest individual contributor, at $200,000. West Virginia Appalachian Laborers gave the group $150,000, followed by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers with $100,000, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 132 with $87,000, the American Federation of Teachers with $50,000 and the United Mine Workers of America, $20,000.
Another big spender this election is the Moving West Virginia Forward BICPAC, which has spent almost exclusively in support of Republican candidates. It received $266,000 of its $352,000 in contributions from coal interests – including $250,000 from Murray Energy Corp. Other contributions include $10,000 from Arch Coal, $5,000 from the West Virginia Coal Association and $1,000 from Central Coal, a company based in Bristol, Va.
“We have only done positive advertising on behalf of or in support of candidates,” said Chris Hamilton, chairman of Moving West Virginia Forward BICPAC and vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association. “We don’t do any negative campaigning. We find that to be very distasteful.”
The West Virginia First PAC received $200,000 – all but $500 of its total contributions – from Penn National Gaming Inc., which operates the Hollywood Casino at Charles Town Races in the state’s Eastern Panhandle. The company also owns casinos in Columbus and Toledo, Ohio. West Virginia First has spent in support of Democrat incumbents, including Delegates Randy Swartz-miller and Ronnie Jones, both D-Hancock, and Sen. Larry Edgell, D-Wetzel, and also in opposition to 3rd District House candidate Dolph Santorine, a Republican.
Meanwhile, West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse has spent almost $204,000 this election cycle, yet the organization does not list a single contribution in excess of $250, the threshold beyond which election law requires sources of funding be identified. It has spent money on communications in support of local Republican candidates including Pat McGeehan, who is running for a 1st District House of Delegates seat, and Ryan Weld in the 2nd District House race. It has targeted Democrat incumbents running for re-election including Jones, Diserio and Edgell.
Another organization, Protect West Virginia, has received all $166,000 of its contributions this election cycle from the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. That organization, which lists an address on K Street in Washington, D.C., recently has targeted a number of Republican challengers for legislative seats representing in the Northern Panhandle with negative campaign mailings, including McGeehan, Weld and Santorine.
One of the mailings shows McGeehan’s face superimposed on a photo of a worker dressed in a delivery uniform bearing lettering clearly imitative of the global delivery giant FedEx’s logo, and proclaiming the Hancock County Republican is “helping pack your job up and send it to China.” Another shows a coal miner ensconced in bubble wrap, stamped with the words “To: China, From: Pat McGeehan.”
McGeehan, who briefly considered running for U.S. Senate this year but instead chose to seek re-election to the House of Delegates seat he occupied from 2009 to 2011, said the mailings are “ludicrous.”
“I can’t make sense of it, to tell you the truth,” he said. “The last time I checked, the West Virginia Legislature has nothing to do with international trade policy. … Next thing they’ll say is that I don’t like puppies or kitty cats.”
McGeehan said the state Legislature is limited in what it can do to stem the flow of jobs overseas, despite what the campaign mailings may lead voters to believe. But he said lawmakers can control spending and reduce taxes on businesses in order to foster a more competitive environment.
Delegate David Evans, R-Marshall, also has been targeted by negative campaign mailings, including one accusing him of putting juvenile murderers back on the streets and another linking him to a movement to legalize marijuana.
Evans said he has a relative who is an active member of a group pushing for such legislation and has attended a couple meetings of that group in support of that relative, but he’s not in favor of legalizing marijuana.
And the ad referencing juvenile murderers, Evans said, refers to his vote in favor of a bill that passed the House of Delegates with broad support making juveniles convicted of murder eligible for parole after 15 years in prison.
“Eighty-nine delegates voted for the bill, and only one Democrat voted against it, but they’re singling me out,” he said.
Evans said he has tried to run a positive campaign, focusing on his positions on key issues rather than smearing his opponents. He said he continues to be surprised by the amount of money being spent on attack ads throughout the state.
“I think a lot of people are getting upset with it,” he said.