CHARLESTON — With West Virginia Republicans trumpeting their first real shot at power in the state legislature in more than 80 years, both Democrats and Republicans went to the polls in the Mountain State Tuesday. The result was a few landslide victories but some races were still hanging in the balance as counties prepare to begin canvassing results Monday.
Among the functions of a vote canvass is to examine what are currently called “provisional ballots.” These were formerly called “challenged ballots.” It indicates poll workers had some reason to question the validity of the voter’s ballot in question. A county commission, sitting as a “board of canvassers,” checks all returns to make sure the law has been followed and also rules on counting these provisional ballots. Often, provisional ballots are cast by poll workers themselves who are working outside their own precinct. The ballots are traditionally counted when the board of canvass meets.
It was really no contest on either side in the race to succeed retiring Democrat U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller. Current Sec. of State Natalie Tennant won 101,650 votes statewide, or 78 percent. Her closest opponent, Dennis Melton, got 15,178 votes, or 12 percent.
Percentage-wise Republican Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito did even better on her side, capturing 87 percent of the vote, with 72,344 ballots. Her closest challenger, Matthew Dodrill, got 6,882 or eight percent.
Democrat State Auditor Glen B. Gainer was unopposed for his party’s 1st congressional district nomination. Incumbent Republican David McKinley was also without challenge. They will meet in November.
In the 3rd district, which includes most of the Southern West Virginia coalfields, what is predicted to be one of the most negative campaigns in the nation was set up Tuesday. Incumbent Democrat Congressman Nick Joe Rahall offset the challenge by Richard Ojeda II, 66 to 34 percent. Rahall, who is being identified by Republicans for being too close to unpopular Democrat President Barack Obama, will face Democrat-turned-Republican State Senator Evan Jenkins in November. Jenkins was unopposed in the primary and has the strong backing of Tea Party and conservative groups.
Charleston lawyer Nick Casey defeated his challenger, state House Del. Meshea Poore by a 60-40 margin. Casey, who has raised considerable money to try to take the second district House seat from the Republicans, spent little in the primary. The district is currently represented by Capito, who is leaving to seek the senate seat.
Seven Republicans sought the nod to replace Capito, the daughter of popular former Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. In the end, Alex Mooney, a former Maryland state GOP chair and Tea Party favorite, garnered 36 percent of the vote to win. Ken Reed was second, at 23 percent; Charlotte Lane, third at 18 percent; Steve Harrison, fourth with 11 percent; Ron Walters Jr., fifth with six percent; Jim Moss, sixth at five percent; and Robert Lawrence Fluharty, last with two percent of the vote.
While many state legislative seats offered no primary contests, at least two in the Southern coalfield region ended up with tight finishes.
One that was not close was Mingo County’s Dist. 20, where incumbent Democrat Justin J. Marcum smoked challenger Michael Baisden, 70 to 30 percent. Marcum will now face Republican Russell Lee Deskins, who has remained typically silent during the 2014 campaign.
Republican Mark Dean drew the short straw but the biggest vote for the right to challenge Democrat House Majority Leader Harry Keith White. White was unopposed on the Democrat side. Dean defeated Roger Stacy, 162 to 96 for the opportunity to challenge the powerful White.
District 22 features one of the closest finishes of the night. Incumbent Jeff Eldridge was an easy winner for the top Democrat nomination. The district includes most of Lincoln County and small portions of Putnam, Logan and Boone. The battle now is between Tomblin-appointed Del. Josh Barker and challenger Gary McCallister for second. When all precincts reported, the unofficial tally was 1,247 for Barker and 1,244 for McCallister. Two are nominated. That means Monday’s canvassing will be all-important in this district, where provisional ballots could tip the scales in either direction. Republicans Michel Moffatt and Justin Mullins were unopposed.
Reports from Lincoln County were that as many as 50 provisional ballots might be considered in Hamlin. That extraordinarily high number could possibly lead to a change in the Democrat outcome.
A bitter race is expected in Boone County’s 23rd Dist., where incumbent Joshua Nelson was unopposed for the GOP nomination. The district is heavily Democrat in registration and Nelson scored an upset win two years ago over then-incumbent Democrat Larry Barker. Since then, Nelson has been on active duty in the military and missed dozens of votes. Nelson has continually updated the residents of the district on his absences, which has caused a great deal of concern in the Republican party. His challenger will be Barry L. Brown, the Democrat who also ran unopposed.
District 24, which includes most of Logan County, was also a nail-biter. Former Delegate Ralph Rodighiero led the Democrat ticket where two are elected. On election night, the incumbent Democrats, Ted Tomblin and Rupie Phillips, ended up in a dead heat. But Logan County “found” an additional precinct Wednesday morning, tallied it and Phillips is now up, 2,113 to 2.059 in unofficial numbers. There, too, canvasses could alter the results although it is not as likely as in the 22nd. Republican Gloria Meadows was the lone GOP candidate.
Democrat Del. Clif Moore, charged with multiple driving violations including drunk driving, won his primary in Dist. 26, defeated challenger Pat McKinney, 55 to 45 percent. Moore will face unchallenged Tom Acosta of the GOP in the fall.
In the Fifth District state senate contest in Cabell County, Mike Woelfel defeated Robert Alexander, 74 to 26 percent. Republican Vicki Dunn-Marshall was not opposed for the seat currently held by Jenkins. Mingo Sen. H. Truman Chafin faced no primary opponent nor did his GOP opponent, Mark Maynard of Wayne County.
Interim legislators appointed by Democrat Governor Earl Ray Tomblin did not fare well on the night. In Harrison County’s 11th District, Mike Romano ousted Tomblin appointee Sen. Sam Cann for the Democrat nomination. Romano will meet Republican Mike Queen, a popular school board member, in the fall.
Wood County’s 10th District saw Dan Poling and Paul E. Miller as the only Democrat candidates in the three-member race. Incumbent Republican Tom Azinger led the GOP field, with 25 percent. Former State Senator Frank Deem was 2nd, with 22 percent; and John R. Kelly came in third, at 18 percent.
The 13th District in Putnam County found Democrat winners Joshua Martin and Josh McGrath. They edged out Eleanor lawyer Rosa Juba-Plumley. Incumbent Republican Scott Cadle led the GOP parade with Tim Gibson in the other position for fall. Democrat Del. Brady Paxton is retiring at the end of his term.
In Putnam County’s 15th District, being vacated by the retirement of Republican Troy Andes, Geoff Foster defeated Duke Jordan, 946 to 600. There is no Democrat running in the district.
District 16 includes Cabell County and a portion of Lincoln. There, incumbent Democrat Kevin Craig is retiring in the three-member district. Incumbent Democrat Jim Morgan led the Democrats, followed by Sean Hornbuckle and Lauren E. Plymale. Republicans were led by incumbent Carol Miller, with Patrick Lucas and Dale Anderson II rounding their field. David Bender and Lionel Jones finished out of the running.
Billy J. Chaffin II won the Democrat nod to take on incumbent Republican Del. Kelli Sobonya in Dist. 18, Cabell County. Chaffin dwarfed Joe Hutchinson, 66 to 34 percent. Incumbent Democrat Tim Kinsey came up a loser in the Democrat primary in Dist. 19. His fellow delegate, Don Perdue, finished first with Ken Hicks second. Perdue captured 40 percent; Hicks, 39 percent; and Kinsey just 21 percent. Steve Marcum and Randy Tomblin ran unopposed for the GOP nominations.
Democrat incumbent Rick Moye, one of only two Democrats (Eldridge being the other) who voted pro-life on the discharge motion on the protect the unborn baby bill, was unopposed. He will face Republican Greg Wood, who defeated Lavonne Pennington, 64 to 36 percent.
In Raleigh County, GOP incumbent Linda Sumner was unopposed in the primary. She will face Democrat Mick Bates, who easily won the Democrat nod.
The three Dist. 32 Democrat incumbents — Margaret Anne Staggers, Dave Perry and John Pino — were unopposed in the primary, as was the Mountain Party’s Tighe Bullock. Republican challengers will be Tom Fast, Kayla Kessinger and William Hughes.
Kanawha County’s 35th Dist., where four are elected, sets up interesting scenarios. The Democrat winners are former Del. Barbara Hatfield, Andrew Byrd, Sherri Wong and Thornton Cooper. Incumbent Democrat Doug Skaff is running for the state senate. The GOP opponents are incumbents Eric Nelson, Suzette Raines and J.B. McCuskey, along with newcomer Chris Stansbury.
In the 36th, Kanawha County, former Democrat Del. Larry Rowe led the field in the three-person district. Incumbent Democrats Nancy Guthrie and Danny Wells finished second and third, respectively. Incumbent Mark Hunt finished fourth. Rowe had 31 percent; Guthrie, 26 percent; Wells, 23 percent; and Hunt, 21 percent. Brad White led Republicans, at 28 percent; with Stevie Thaxton at 16 percent and Vaughn Sizemore at 13 percent. Sizemore is leading fourth-place Adam Marcum by just seven votes in the unofficial tabulations.
In downtown Charleston’s 37th Dist., Democrat Mike Pushkin won the nomination in a five-person field to replace Poore, who ran for congress. He will be challenged by perennial Republican candidate Charles Minimah.
Other races around the state will likely determine the balance of power in the house, where Democrats currently outnumber Republicans, 53-47. There are ten Republicans in the 34-member state senate. State GOP officials have made taking over the legislature a major theme of their 2014 campaign. They are targeting grass-roots organization and are even opening what they call a “permanent” field office in Logan.
Democrats have controlled the state legislature for as long as most people can remember. State Chair Larry Puccio has made retaining a majority one of his party’s major goals. Puccio says good organizations in each county will be the key to victory this fall.