Races To Watch In The West Virginia Senate: Dems Hope To Turn Tide In Increasingly Red State
Updated Wednesday, October 28, 2020 at 3 a.m. to reflect the latest campaign finance filings.
Half of the 34 seats in the West Virginia Senate are on the ballot this election and many of the races this cycle are expected to be highly competitive. While Republicans currently hold the upper chamber, Democrats are hoping to make gains and possibly take the majority.
Democrats would need to pick up four seats to make taking the majority a reality. But with Republicans running unopposed in two districts — the 6th and the 9th — and the state leaning increasingly red, many political observers believe the upper chamber will remain under GOP control after votes begin to be tallied on Nov. 3.
Marshall University political science professor Marybeth Beller said election outcomes are likely to rest on recent trends in the state, with Republicans taking over the statehouse in 2014 and President Donald Trump’s big win in 2016. While Beller thinks Democrats could narrow the margin between themselves and the Republican majority, she said it’s unlikely they will flip the upper chamber.
“Trump is still very popular here. [Gov. Jim] Justice seems to still be very popular here, which means that the Republicans running for office are going to have an advantage — even if they're not the incumbent,” Beller said. “So, I don't know that we should look to a Democratic takeover in the [West Virginia] Senate. It is possible. But I think the odds are in the Republican candidates’ favor.”
West Virginia University political science professor Scott Crichlow agrees that the state is likely to remain a Republican stronghold. But, broadly speaking, he said the West Virginia Senate is more competitive than the House of Delegates or races in the executive branch.
“I don't think many people would think that the state House would flip or come close to flipping,” Crichlow said. “I think people think that most of the statewide races have pretty clear favorites. The Senate is much more up in the air.”
With candidates in some races pulling in huge fundraising hauls, a lot of races appear to be highly competitive. The latest campaign finance reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office show more than $3.1 million raised across the races for the 17 open seats.
But fundraising isn’t the only bellwether for how competitive a race may be. There are also district-level nuances, historical state trends and a busy news cycle that can influence the whim of voters.
Here’s a look at the races to watch in the West Virginia Senate:
District 1: The (Most) Northern Panhandle District Likely To Be A Tight Race
Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, is squaring off against Del. Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, in the district that represents the most northern boundaries of West Virginia.
Swartzmiller and Weld have raised more than a $300,000 between the two of them, with the Democrat hauling in more than $163,000 and the Republican pulling in more than $157,000.
Crichlow said Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, unseating Republican Ryan Ferns in 2018 is a weak barometer for the 1st District this cycle. While that was a big pick-up for Democrats in the midterm election, Crichlow notes that Ihlenfeld’s win was relatively narrow.
“I think it makes total sense — considering that [district] switched to Democrat last cycle — that Democrats would focus on it,” Crichlow said. “But I think that the 1st is a harder get this time than it was last time.”
Still yet, Crichlow said he expects the race to draw in a lot of outside money as Election Day nears.
District 2: Republican Maroney’s Personal And Legal Issues Leave Him Vulnerable
Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, made headlines last year when he was charged with soliciting a prostitute. While he has yet to stand trial on the matter, another prostitute was arrested Aug. 5 after said she had left Maroney’s home and had just engaged in prostitution.
Maroney maintains his innocence and contends that the charges against him and new evidence are a “hoax.”
“The people around here know me,” said Maroney about how the charges against him may affect his bid for re-election. “And they also know who's involved on the other side — and how corrupt the Democratic machine in Marshall county is.”
Democrat Josh Gary, a public school teacher, has attempted to spin Maroney’s troubles into a pickup, although he said he has been uneasy about trying to capitalize on the situation.
“Do I want to use that against him? No, I don't want to use it against him,” Gary said. “But it's still an issue. Because if your representative is spending time being distracted by their own personal legal troubles, then you're not going to have very good representation.”
District 4: With Carmichael Out, Does The 4th Stay Red?
After drawing the ire of teachers over the past few years, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was knocked out in the primary by fellow Republican Amy Nicole Grady, a public school teacher.
Grady, a newcomer to politics, is facing off against Democrat and union laborer Bruce Ashworth and Libertarian Lloyd Butcher, neither of whom have held public office.
Crichlow said he expects Republicans to hold the seat, given the political landscape in the district. But, he said, Carmichael quickly was painted as a target for teachers over the past few years.
“The way that I read that is that it's actually easier for them to hold without Carmichael,” Crichlow said. “I just think that Carmichael being Carmichael and again — kind of based on the teacher strike thing — that race would have gotten a lot more attention and a lot more money put into it [had Carmichael made it through the primary.] I just think it'll be a more boring race, if that makes sense, without Carmichael.”
District 7: Hardesty Gave Up A Bid For Reelection, But Do Dems Keep It?
The 7th District has been a winding road over the past few years, with Sen. Paul Hardesty — a former lobbyist who once represented coal companies owned by Jim Justice — appointed to fill the seat once held by Richard Ojeda, who had resigned to run for president but dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination less than a month in.
Hardesty announced in September 2019 he would not make a run for the seat in 2020.
On the ballot this election are two established politicians, Del. Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan and former Del. Rupie Phillips, who is also from Logan County.
Rodighiero first served in the House from 2006 to 2012. He then returned to the lower chamber after regaining the seat in 2014.
Phillips has played political party musical chairs in recent years. He was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2010 as a Democrat before becoming an independent in 2017. In 2018, he ran for the U.S. House as a Republican but narrowly lost the party’s nomination to Carol Miller.
“I think a lot of ways [Phillips] kind of embodies the southern West Virginia Democrats who — especially for a lot of domestic issues — felt less and less comfortable with the national party across time,” said Crichlow, pointing to ideological divides over abortion, gun rights and the so-called war on coal.
While the race is expected to remain close, Crichlow said he sees the 7th District an opportunity for Republicans to pick up the seat.
District 10: Former Dem Vice Chair Laird Could Land Dems A Pick Up
Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, often broke with the majority party on education issues in recent legislative sessions. In November 2019, Mann announced he would not seek another term in office and would instead focus on his business.
Running for the open seat in the 10th District now is Bill Laird, former state Democratic Party vice chair and former state senator, and Republican Jack David, who serves as a Summers County Commissioner.
Crichlow said Laird’s experience as a seasoned lawmaker and a leader in the state party is likely to translate to a pick-up for Democrats.
District 11: Do R’s Hold The Seat With A Comeback From Karnes?
Another district that has seen a rotating cast in recent years has been the 11th District.
Former Sen. Robert Karnes was knocked out in the 2018 primaries after becoming a target of teachers and unions in general. Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, who beat Karnes in the 2018 Republican primary, went on to win in the general.
But the other seat in the district — the one up for grabs this cycle — had most recently been in the hands of Sen. John Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas. Pitsenbarger’s time in the upper chamber wound up being short-lived, after being appointed to fill the seat following the departure of Sen. Greg Boso in fall of 2019.
In the 2020 primaries, Karnes defeated Pittsenbarger — allowing Karnes to make a potential return to the statehouse. Democrats have put up former delegate, nurse and nursing instructor Denise Campbell to square off against Karnes.
According to campaign finance reports, Campbell has raised just over $122,000 compared to Karnes’ haul of just over $42,000. Crichlow said fundraising figures — and negative views about Karnes spurred on by the initial teacher strike in 2018 — may translate to a pickup for Democrats.
“Republicans, I’d say, should probably hold that seat — except that they nominated Karnes,” Crichlow said. “Karnes lost his primary [in 2018] by so much when he tried to win re-election to the others in that district. There's so much more like a negative view about Karnes himself that I think that might enable Denise Campbell to win that race.”
District 12: Facemier Tries To Hold The Seat For Dems
Crichlow said Sen. Doug Facemier, D-Braxton, faces a tough bid for re-election in a district that stretches north to south across some of the most central parts of West Virginia. Facemier has held the seat since first winning it in 2008.
Del. Patrick Martin, R-Lewis, who was first elected to the House of Delegates in 2016, is attempting to unseat Facemier in the 12th District.
While Facemier has brought in more than $189,000 compared to Martin’s $73,000, outside spending by independent expenditures has been significant in the district.
District 16: Education Chair Rucker Gets Challenge From Dem Jefferson Co. Sheriff
With Democrats picking off Carmichael in the June primary, they also set their sights on others in GOP leadership — namely, Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. Democrats have nominated Jefferson County Sheriff Paul Dougherty, who has served as the county’s top law enforcement officer since 2013.
Rucker, who helped push the omnibus education bill, has been a proponent of private schools and charters.
“Patricia Rucker has been like the face of who the teachers were striking against,” Crichlow said. “You know, that to me in that part of the state and this where John Unger — another Democrat — holds the other seat. The Democrats have a good candidate in [Sheriff Dougherty]. I think that is a good chance for them.”
According to campaign finance reports, Rucker has far outraised Doughtery. Outside spending has also been significant in the race for the 16th.
District 17: Nelson And Robinson Each Take In $350,000-Plus In Largest Candidate Fundraising Hauls
When it comes to candidate fundraising, no race matched the one in the 17th District between Republican Eric Nelson and Democrat Andrew Robinson, who are both current members of the House of Delegates from Kanawha County. Both of them surpassed the $350,000 mark in campaign fundraising.
“We got in this race knowing that we had to be well-funded and we had to work every waking moment to get to make this to win the seat,” Robinson said.
Nelson pointed to the influence of outside money as a reason for having to raise so much money for his campaign.
“Look at all the third-party money being spent against me,” Nelson said in an interview last week. “Gosh, I think to date, $280,000 — in addition to Robinson's $300,000 that he's raised.”
Beller said the high-dollar 17th District is shaping up to be one of the most exciting ones to watch.
“I can tell you that Nelson obviously brings with him a lot of power coming out of the House and the work he's done over the years,” Beller said. “On the other hand the 17th is a more progressive district — and Robinson has built a following.”
Crichlow agreed that the 17th District is likely to be one of the most competitive races, but believes the GOP has an advantage.
“If I was a Republican, that would be like the No. 1 place I would look and so, therefore, it's not shocking that you wind up having so much money going to them in that district,” Crichlow said. “Cory Palumbo was an electoral titan, basically. As soon as that seat was going to open up Republicans were going to go for it — and it finally did.”