Pandemic And Recent Protests Shape West Virginia’s Primary That Offered Some Big Surprises

Jun 10, 2020

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and worldwide protests calling for an end to systemic racism and police brutality in the United States, West Virginia’s 2020 primary election Tuesday was one for the books. The election featured an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, some predictable results, and some major upsets.  

As expected, presumptive presidential nominees Donald Trump and Joe Biden each won their races in West Virginia. Both had secured enough delegates to win Republican and Democratic nominations, respectively, ahead of Tuesday. 

But other federal races are now beginning to take shape as November approaches.

Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito will take on Democrat Paula Jean Swearengin in the General Election. All three of the state’s sitting congressional representatives — David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — won their primaries and will face their respective Democratic opponents this fall.

Incumbent Republican Gov. Jim Justice won handedly beating out six other candidates by pulling 63 percent of the vote. 

“All the stars are aligning right in our favor,” Justice told supporters in a phone call while the results trickled in. “We've still got a long ways to go, and I know that, and absolutely all of us should feel that way as we're all grabbing a rope and running through this finish line together.”

Democrat Ben Salango took home his party’s nomination for governor, besting physician and Boone County state Sen. Ron Stollings and community organizer Stephen Smith. 

Republican Incumbent Losses Will Shakeup The Statehouse 

Results from statehouse races included some major upsets that will reshape the Republican majority in the Legislature. 

Teacher Amy Grady, who describes herself as pro-life and pro-Second Amendment, defeated Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, in the 4th Senatorial District primary.

Carmichael drew the ire of public school teachers and their unions in 2018 and 2019 as teachers first went on strike for better pay and benefits, and then later to push back on other proposals they opposed, including charter schools. 

“I was sort of the focal point for any opposition,” Carmichael said. “There always has to be like a boogeyman, I guess. And that became me, and that's fine.”

Carmichael congratulated Grady on her win and said he would support her continued run for his seat. His departure will throw into question who will lead the upper chamber should the GOP hold on the majority after November’s general election. 

Other Republican incumbents in the state Senate met similar fates Tuesday. Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, lost in the 9th District to former Wyoming County circuit clerk David “Bugs” Stover, as did Sen. John Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas, to former Sen. Robert Karnes in the 11th District. Karnes himself had been knocked out of another seat in a 2018 primary after the Charleston-Gazette Mail raised questions about where the former state senator was actually residing.  

In the House of Delegates, a handful of notable Republican incumbents will also not be on the ballot come November.

Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, came in fifth in the race for the three-member 27th District. In 2019, Porterfield made inflammatory remarks against the LGBTQ+  community and likened queer advocacy groups to the Klu Klux Klan. In an interview with WVVA-TV as that controversy unfolded, Porterfield insinuated he would drown his children if they were gay. 

Speaker Pro Tempore Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, of the 58th District and Del. Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, of the 59th District also were defeated by their respective primary challengers.

Other Races Show Impact Of Absentee Voting

While most of the primaries for the state’s five constitutional offices (Agriculture Commissioner, Attorney General, Auditor, Treasurer and Secretary of State) were unopposed, one race has yet to be called. 

Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, appears to be edging out Sam Petsonk for the Democratic nomination for attorney general, by less than 1,000 votes, with all precincts reporting as of Wednesday afternoon. The Associated Press has yet to declare a winner in the race with potentially thousands of absentee ballots outstanding. 

The primary served as the deciding election for open seats on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. 

Chief Justice Tim Armstead will retain his seat on the bench in Division 1. The race for Division 2 has yet to be called, but former state Sen. Bill Wooton has a lead of more than 6,000 votes over three other candidates with all precincts reporting. In Division 3, Justice John Hutchison will keep his seat for four more years to serve out the remainder of an unexpired term.

Secretary of State Mac Warner said Tuesday’s election went smoothly, given public health concerns over COVID-19. Warner said it may take some time for some races to be settled, given the large number of absentee ballots requested this election. He stressed that results remain unofficial until canvassing takes place next week. 

“I just ask everybody to understand the process, wait, be patient,” Warner said Tuesday. “We will get official results just as soon as we can. But if it's a close race, it may be a week or so before we can announce that.”

At least one local race has caught national attention: In Wheeling, the state’s first publicly transgender person was elected into public office. Rosemary Ketchum will take a seat on the Wheeling City Council, after winning the city’s Third Ward race by 15 votes

"For me, realizing that I could be defined solely based on my gender identity was uncomfortable, but there are so many examples of powerful and unapologetic leadership from people who are very unique," Ketchum said. "We need the most diverse representation we can possibly get, and that only happens when diverse people decide to run. We can't expect the white majority to decide to be diverse. We can't expect the cis[gender] majority to decide to be diverse."

Danielle Stewart, another transgender woman who chairs the Beckley Humans Right Commission, lost in her city’s mayoral race. Robert Rappold was re-elected, despite running against what the Beckley Register-Herald referred to as a historically diverse list of candidates.

A Pandemic And Protests Linger Over The Primaries

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic played a significant role in how many voters approached their civic duties. State officials expanded the state’s absentee ballot to allow any registered voter to vote by mail because of the pandemic. 

Will Wallace of Wheeling voted absentee for the first time this election. He said the process allowed him an opportunity to thoroughly look into candidates on the ballot.  

“I signed up months ago and got about a month to vote. So, I sat down, and when I had free time at work, I would pull it out and look at this thing where I had no idea who the candidates were,” Wallace said. “I’d Google them, and wherever I could find information, and I made informed opinions on them, which is something I’ve never had the ability to do before.”

Other voters decided to show up to the polls. Morgantown resident Greg Boyce said he had put off requesting an absentee ballot.  

“I thought with the proper precautions coming out voting in person was okay,” he said. “And everything inside of the polling station was done really well — really safe, I thought.”

Some acknowledged that the threat of COVID-19 was still lingering as voters made their way to the polls. 

“Some people are scared to death. I watched the news last night. We have five new cases here in Ohio County,” Rodney Carter said. “So it’s not like it’s going away. You really have to be careful.”

Members of the state’s black community said the ongoing protests over George Floyd’s death had added fuel to community organizing around the election. Mavery Davis of Charleston gathered a small group to march to the Kanawha County Clerk’s Office to help those who weren’t registered for the primary get signed up to vote in November. 

“We’ve got to leverage the tools that our ancestors have already given us. And that is the power to be passionate, and to organize and get in the streets,” Davis said. 

He added that he feels those protesting need to continue that action further.

“Let's take that marching to the next level,” Davis said. “Because, if I can get your attention to get in the street, I should be able to get your attention to line up here and go to the polls and  get organized and know exactly who you're going to vote for and why.”

WVPB reporters Emily Allen, Glynis Board, Caitlin Tan, Brittany Patterson, Roxy Todd and Liz McCormick contributed to this report.