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W.Va. GOP chairman has big hopes for transition

Editor’s note: It’s been more than 80 years since Republicans have had any control in the West Virginia House and Senate. Come January, the GOP will control both chambers. State Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas joins us this weekend in the Sunday Sit-Down to discuss 2015, the gubernatorial race in 2016 and more issues.

WHEELING, W.Va. — It’s been more than 80 years since Republicans held the majority in the West Virginia Legislature. That will change in January. What, in your opinion, brought the state to this point?

Lucas: I think voters were looking for change. They’ve heard the rhetoric for a long time, but 80 years was enough. We continually see West Virginia at the bottom of all the good categories and the top of all the bad, and voters used this election as a chance to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo.

– What do you believe Republican legislators’ priorities should be during the upcoming regular session?

Lucas: We’re going to see them focus on a myriad of issues. It’s going to be tax reform. Education, I understand, is going to be a large focus in getting money closer to the classroom, teachers and students. They are looking at several tax reforms that have inhibited business development here and job growth, and we know always the overarching theme is going to be focused on energy industries and ensuring that coal and natural gas are in an environment to thrive.

– And after the session, what sort of long-term plans and priorities?

Lucas: Long term, it’s focusing on exactly those issues. When I say education reform, you know that is going to take a while. Education is a massive endeavor for the state and so we will see them continue to focus on that. You can only do so much in one session, and there is a lot to tackle, so obviously whenever we talk about tax reform – I don’t anticipate there will be an overarching tax reform and repealing a variety of taxes in January. I believe that will be part of a long-term solution. Our goal, of course, will be for them to – after their first session in charge after 80 years – have regular things to point to and say, “This is what we did this session. This is what we did in two years. Now let’s see what else we can do.”

– What percentage of Democrats in the Legislature do you expect to go along with Republican initiatives?

Lucas: There are still conservative Democrats in the Legislature. There are several who are occupying districts that are very friendly to Republicans. I would expect we will see a large percentage of conservative Democrats who perhaps have been looking for a reason to support Republicans. The biggest change is, of course, the party in control, but (also) the leadership itself. The leadership of both chambers in the last session … had gone farther to the left, and I think that made some members of the caucuses on the Democrat side less comfortable and I think they’ll be more excited to be in chambers under Republican control.

– Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has been suggested as a possible candidate for House of Delegates Speaker, and Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, as possibly the next Senate President. Are you comfortable with those gentlemen and do you believe they have what is needed to move the state forward?

Lucas: Absolutely. They are both terrific men, terrific people, which is the starting point, and they both have proven themselves as great leaders and I think they are the perfect combination. Delegate Armstead, who has been in the Legislature for a while now and has seen it from a lot of perspectives, being in a huge minority when he started off and now being from arguably a huge majority. Sen. Cole has not been in the Legislature as long, which is a great perspective to have. So we have not only individuals who are strong, but a collective team.

– What advice would you give those two men for January?

Lucas: Be strong, be conservative, but be tempered. Voters certainly voted for change and they want to see that. They want to see us move out of these bad categories. They have concerns, ranging from economics to education to social values. It’s obvious the leadership has been given a message and they need to show the strength to carry that message forward in legislation. But, we are in charge now, and that should certainly mean we use strong leadership skills of being well-reasoned, being good diplomats, not necessarily being in the position of always, say, (being an) attack dog. Now, the party political infrastructure is certainly moving that direction. We’ve always been the minority, meaning we’re always on the attack, so we are looking forward to celebrating successes now, so that is a new tone for us. I’m confident our leadership, the president of the Senate and Speaker of the House, will be following … that philosophy.

– There’s already been talk statewide about right-to-work legislation. Do you expect to see such a bill come forth in the session?

Lucas: We shall see. It’s certainly in the Republican party platform and has been discussed for a long time. That is very bold legislation and we shall see. There certainly has not been a public announcement on that either way.

– How well do you expect Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will work with Republican majorities in the Senate and House?

Lucas: Gov. Tomblin is a Democrat, but he is also a product of the Legislature. I can’t say that I know him personally, but his career is that of great respect to the Legislature, so I would assume that there will be a good working relationship simply based on biography and reputation.

– What plans are you and other Republican leaders making for the 2016 elections?

Lucas: We’ve already started. (Planning for) 2014 effectively began the Monday after Thanksgiving when Shelley Moore Capito announced her run for U.S. Senate. We know the focus for 2016 for us is multi-fold. It’s preserving our legislative gains, preserving and increasing. We can’t view this as a permanent mandate from the people. It’s certainly not that yet. We left many seats still on the playing field. There are a lot of vulnerable Democrats out there, so we know strategically we need to preserve what we have and grow. We’re at 64 in the House, there is no reason we can’t be larger. And obviously the statewide races. Patrick Morrisey is the strongest attorney general we’ve had certainly in my lifetime and I look forward to his continued role, but he of course has been the subject of a lot of criticism from the former Democrat-controlled Legislature and I know he is excited to get on the campaign trail. And we know that the governor’s race is most certainly in play for Republicans now, so the governor’s race has the potential to be what the U.S. Senate race was in 2014.

– It’s early in the 2016 election cycle, but are there any legislative seats now held by Democrats that you’re targeting for those elections?

Lucas: Every statewide race right now is in play for Republicans. The Democrats just saw two of their statewide elected officials lose in statewide races, badly, not just in close races. (West Virginia Secretary of State) Natalie Tennant under performed (President) Barack Obama in West Virginia. That shows us right there that seat is vulnerable. … (West Virginia Auditor) Glen Gainer was just shellacked by Congressman (David) McKinley, R-W.Va., on Gainer’s home turf. He was only running in a third of the state and it was the third where he was from. That shows the weakness of their bench, so everything is in play.

– So … who’s going to run for governor in 2016, both Republican and Democrat?

Lucas: Both benches are deep in some regards. I’ll talk about our side, just some of the names that have been mentioned in the press.

Obviously Congressman McKinley has proven himself on the campaign trail and as a member of Congress and with the business community. Representing such as a large percentage of the state and particularly representing so many Republicans is key to a primary. One thing about Congressman McKinley is he has run for governor before, so we know it is out there that he has had interest in the past and presumably would in the future. I’ve just mentioned the Attorney General. Until Congresswoman Capito’s election, besides the (West Virginia) Supreme Court members, (Morrisey) was the only statewide Republican and he beat a very formidable opponent in Darrell McGraw. I’m not sure if the Attorney General has those ambitions, but it is logical thinking. Sen. Bill Cole is someone that has been getting a lot of attention from folks. In a presumptive role he will have in the next Legislature as the senate president, defacto lieutenant governor, he is the No. 2 guy, one heartbeat away from the governorship himself. He’s been a very impressive man. The short time he has spent in the Legislature he has taken it by storm. We see those three gentlemen as potentials on our side.

On the Democrat side, I mentioned both benches are deep, and let me rephrase that: I think on their side they have a lot of names. If that equates to a deep bench, then I guess it does. They certainly have a lot of names. Natalie Tennant has run before and has said she has those ambitions. They have several statewide officeholders. I don’t know if Glen Gainer has those intentions. (State Treasurer) John Perdue has run before and he would be up. (State Commissioner of Agriculture) Walt Helmick, there has always been chatter and he is a state office holder. And then (U.S. Sen.) Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is, of course, the name everyone is waiting to see what he might be up to. West Virginians have been subject to his political histrionics in the past when he’s been governor, left early, and now is flirting with leaving the U.S. Senate early.

One thing about Sen. Manchin, while of course he is a formidable opponent … I think he saw his political brand damaged this past political cycle. He did ads for around a dozen state legislative candidates and two congressional candidates and lost all of those. He campaigned for (U.S. Sen.) Mary Landrieu, D-La., in Louisiana and she is going to lose there in about three weeks. I think that he sees himself being boxed in. I don’t know him personally, but his brand has been damaged. Particularly in the 3rd Congressional District he did positive ads for Nick Rahall, but in the 2nd District he did a positive ad for Nick Casey but negative against Alex Mooney, which I thought was going out on a limb of a sitting senator attacking a potential federal colleague from his own state, I thought was rather bold and he lost. There is no reason for any Republican in West Virginia who has gubernatorial ambition to defer to Joe Manchin.

– What do Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins need to do over the next two years to tell voters they made the right choice?

Lucas: Practice what they preach. Both elections had a coal-oriented theme, particularly for Evan Jenkins. Nick Rahall, despite being a seasoned congressman, voted against the coal industry several times in the past few congressional cycles. It’s a simple message: If you say you are going to do something, then do it. Congressman-elect Jenkins said he was going to stand up for the coal industry, so now it’s time. And I believe he will, he won’t be complacent like Nick Rahall was. For Mooney, it’s the same thing. If you say you are going to fight the EPA, do it. Mooney also had a strong focus on Obamacare. Therefore, if you say you are going to work to repeal it, work to repeal it. … In the 3rd District, despite the overwhelming amount of Democrats, Evan Jenkins early on, people thought well this will be the nail biter, and he won everywhere. I think he only lost three counties … in the district. … So they’ve both been given strong messages from voters to practice what they preach and I believe they will.

– Natalie Tennant and Glen Gainer: In your opinion, why did both of them perform so badly on Nov. 4?

Lucas: … The other view is the Republicans performed so well. McKinley, I came to Wheeling the morning after the election in 2010. I was an employee of the state party at that time and was here because that (election) was so tight. Then two years later for McKinley to have, in our view, have been essentially given a free pass without a primetime opponent, and then two years later being what turned out to be given a free pass with someone who grabbed a lot of headlines out of the gate. McKinley in particular, in thinking about that race, being in Wheeling, it was job performance review. He went into Congress very strong and being named to the energy committee right out of the gate was a testament to his conviction. … West Virginians understand the importance of coal byproducts, fly ash in particular, because of David McKinley, so he got a great job review. I think he is very safe for as long as he chooses to run.

Shelley Capito, it’s the same. She had the distinction of being the only Republican in Congress from West Virginia, so she was able to be a standout. Before Congressman McKinley joined her, she was a standout for the state for a decade of being generally the only person who would vote the way West Virginians would want their representative to. So it was strong job performances from both would be why I would view it as Republicans running so well, but Democrats running so poorly as West Virginia Democrats don’t identify with the Democrat party anymore.

We saw that internally with polling data over and over. We asked a question in some polls around the state of not how you are registered, but which party you most identified with, which was where we saw results that indicated to us Tuesday could have been the overwhelming election that it turned out to be.

– Has anyone done a spending breakdown on the legislative races? Were Republicans outspent, or vice versa? Or was spending fairly even?

Lucas: We’re always outspent. We’re used to that. There are a few different ways to look at it. You have to look at the candidates themselves, the parties, and then the outside groups that have already disclosed and the outside groups that haven’t.

The candidate level, as a general rule, we were outspent. There were several high-profile races where there was a lot of spending from both candidates. In Senate District 1, both candidates were able to put together a lot of resources. And we saw some legislative races around the state where some Republicans raised a large sum of money, but as a general rule we were still outspent in the candidate races. … When it comes to state party expenditures, a lot of our resources of course went to federal races as well, but from disclosures the state Republican party, definitely, we spent more on legislative races directly than the state Democrat party. But the state Democrat party I believe put together more resources than us as a whole. But of course we all spend for federal races differently.

In terms of outside spending, from what I can tell, we were outspent, but there was a fight put up for Republicans as well. From what’s been disclosed thus far in terms of outside groups … it appears organized labor, some gambling interests and the trial bar put together over $2 million to spend against Republicans and on behalf of Democrats. There has definitely been some pro-business expenditures that have benefited Republicans and we’ll see more of that in December.

I’m confident in saying we were outspent, very much so, but it wasn’t to the overwhelming degree we’d feared.

– Democrats and Republicans traded some pretty nasty accusations. How much ill will developed during the election campaign? Will that make it more difficult to work together in the future?

Lucas: There is an adage in West Virginia of “Everything in West Virginia is political except for politics, which is personal,” and we saw some of that, unfortunately, come out. In the Huntington area there was direct mail sent out against legislative candidates saying they were supported by meth dealers. Even in politics there are supposed to be ethics. Anytime we’ve ever felt we were brushing up against a line, we generally choose not to cross it. I think that the outside expenditures against Republicans this year unfortunately moved that line, a line that we will not come close to, but the line was moved.

In terms of cooperation and working together, I hope and believe that folks on both sides of the aisle can put the campaign aspect behind them as we move into January and the legislative session. I will say, our message since then, we’ve tried to be as positive as possible despite the campaign tactics. I think even Democrats in West Virginia can and will agree the best thing for our state is that we’re a two-party system. As Republicans, we’re big on the free market and competition, but the best type of competition in free market is that of ideas, and now there is no question Republicans and Democrats both are going to have vigorous debate in the Legislature. Of course I mean that in both practical terms and philosophical: Debate is good for West Virginia, and we have that now. Considering so many Democrats voted Republican and so many Democrats this year punched straight-ticket Republican, we know that the voting populace itself wanted a two-party system, and that’s what they got.

– As head of the state GOP, what do you believe you have to do to keep the ship going in the right direction?

Lucas: When we began looking at what we were going to do in the ’12 cycle, the ’14 cycle and now looking to ’16, the message that we always said was Republicans are always beaten on the ground, meaning we many times didn’t recruit candidates for seats we could have won, we didn’t have the volunteer base the Democrat party has, we didn’t have the county committee organizations and structures we needed, and there is no reason for the West Virginia Republican party to shut its doors and close down and put up a “Gone Fishing” sign until October of 2016. We still view our role going forward as establishing a sustainable party that continues to exist even in the odd-numbered years. Campaigns are 365 days a year and seven days a week despite whether the year you’re in is odd numbered or even numbered. So we’re going to continue with the infrastructure building. This year we were chartering some College Republicans and Young Republicans chapters around the state. We’re going to continue that. Our efforts are continuing to build up the grassroots infrastructure without campaigns in the way, so we have the odd-numbered year to continue with developing some of our county committees. We’ve had some great success this year with county committees coming together that hadn’t in the past, so continuing to develop those, developing our volunteer base and doing outreach.

The RNC (Republican National Committee) released what it called the Growth and Opportunity Project two years ago in the post-mortem of the 2012 election. Republicans need to be engaged in communities and to reach out to young people and to reach out to minority communities. So in West Virginia we took our lead from the national party of staying in business year-round and continuing to engage voters. Though the Democrat party will remain a majority in terms of registrations for the foreseeable future, so we always have an uphill battle in terms of a natural voting affiliation base, the majority of West Virginians we know are conservative, but they aren’t registered that way, so we need to still make folks comfortable voting Republican.

Being the state that we are, we’re always subject to wave elections. We saw very positive things for us last week, but there’s no reason for us to think that is permanent. It’s not permanent, yet. We have work to do.

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