West Virginia’s Key Primaries, The Race For The Supreme Court And The Divide Over Absentee Voting

May 26, 2020

Before the coronavirus made its way to West Virginia and delayed the state’s primary, the upcoming election was already shaping up to be one of the most closely watched in recent years. 

With the election now moved to Tuesday, June 9, the spotlight has remained on some races, while each party has taken strong positions when it comes to absentee mail-in voting. 

West Virginia Wesleyan College political science professor Robert Rupp said the upcoming primary stands out for a few reasons.

“One is we’ve moved the date. And second of all, we're changing the method we vote by [making] this big push for absenteeism,” Rupp said. “So it's a historic primary in many ways — and because of the virus, it's been underreported and hardly seen.”

Gubernatorial Primaries Pivotal For Each Party

Rupp points to each party’s gubernatorial primary as being a pivotal moment in the state’s political history — namely, because incumbent governors are rarely challenged within their own party. 

Gov. Jim Justice is one exception to that rule, with former state commerce secretary and businessman Woody Thrasher and former Del. Michael Folk among the top challengers running to win the GOP nomination.

Rupp said Justice has some “baggage” coming into the Republican primary because the billionaire businessman-turned-politician was elected as a Democrat in 2016 before switching parties seven months into his term. Further, an ongoing lawsuit claims that Justice has violated a constitutional mandate that the governor must reside in the state capital.

“I'm going to be looking to see if that baggage is going to make a surprise in the primary — because he's a very unusual governor in this state,” Rupp said.

But Rupp said the race for the Republican nomination for governor isn’t the most intriguing aspect of this year’s primary for the state’s top office. That, he said, comes from the other side of the aisle — with eight Democratic candidates in the race.

“The fact is that the Democratic Party is in the middle of an identity crisis,” Rupp said. “If Republicans have to decide if they want to keep the current Republican governor, Democrats have to decide which way they’re going. Are they reformist with a revolution? What should the party do since it obtained minority status?”

Top contenders in the race for the Democratic nomination are Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, community organizer Stephen Smith, and physician and state senator Ron Stollings. 

Salango has the backing of state Democratic stalwart U.S. Senator Joe Manchin. Smith is running a grassroots, small-dollar fundraising campaign that promises sweeping social reforms for the state. And Stollings, touting his experience in state government, has positioned himself as a moderate. 

As President Carmichael Gets A Challenge, GOP Touts Party Strength

Rupp said the gubernatorial primaries are the main races to watch, but he points to other marquee figures in the state’s political sphere that are facing challenges within their own parties. Most notably, the president of the state Senate.

“Mitch Carmichael is being challenged in the Republican primary. This shouldn't be happening, according to history or textbook,” Rupp said.

Carmichael, who drew the ire of West Virginia teachers over the past two years as he pushed for charter schools and other controversial education reforms, is running against Del. Jim Butler for the 4th Senatorial District. 

Butler has positioned himself as more conservative than Carmichael — taking aim at Carmichael’s push for a “last dollar in” grant program for community college and expressing tepid support for equal rights for LGBTQ communities.

While political parties are timid when it comes to weighing in on their own primaries, West Virginia Republican Party executive director Byron Fisher said the GOP has continued to pick up momentum since taking control of the statehouse in 2014, evidenced by a long list of candidates in the 2020 primary. 

Part of that, Fisher said, is President Donald Trump’s big win here in 2016.

“Republicans were already moving — West Virginia was already moving that way — when President Trump was elected,” Fisher said. “So I think it's his popularity. But it's also the values that the policies that he and the Republican Party espouse and seek to implement.”

Fisher also noted that Republicans have a candidate on the ballot in all races, except for three seats in the House of Delegates. 

“It is a sign of a strong, vibrant, growing party. But we have a lot of candidates interested in the office of Governor or any office that we have that's contested,” Fisher said. “It means that the nomination is something worth having and the Republican Party in West Virginia is strong.”

Non-Partisan Supreme Court Races Get Partisan Influence

The West Virginia Republican Party is closely watching the three open seats on the state Supreme Court that will be decided this upcoming election, Fisher said. While those races are non-partisan, the state GOP has endorsed three candidates: current Justice Tim Armstead, Fifth Judicial Circuit Judge Lora Dyer and Putnam County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kris Raynes. 

“I don't think it's necessarily partisan, but there is a certain view that does seem to fall down partisan lines,” Fisher said of the races.

Campaign finance reports reflect a partisan influence on the races for the state’s high court. 

The Republican State Leadership Committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative has spent more $300,000 to support Armstead, Dyer and Raynes. That independent expenditure committee, which donates money to support or oppose candidates without coordinating with a campaign, also has spent more than $430,000 to oppose former Justice Richard Neely.

Another such group, Re Set West Virginia, has spent more than $790,000 trying to influence the races for seats on the state’s high court, supporting current Justice John Hutchison, former Justice Neely and Thirteenth Judicial Circuit Judge Joanna Tabit. The group has sought to remove  Justice Armstead.

Democrats worry the non-partisan Supreme Court races — which will ultimately be decided in the June 9 election — will be confusing for some voters.

“In my books, there's no such thing as non-partisan. And we absolutely identify who the Democrats in those races are.” West Virginia Democratic Party chair Belinda Biafore said. 

Before West Virginia made its judicial races non-partisan in 2016,  judges and candidates clearly identified with one party or another, a system Biafore said worked much better.

“The only way that voters really had a way to gauge who would be a good Supreme Court justice or a magistrate or judge was to know if they were a Democrat or Republican,” Biafore said. “Because knowing how they were registered would give you a good idea of knowing what they stood for and what values and things were important to them.”

Democrats Eye November Races, Hope To Chip Away At Republican Statehouse Majority

Biafore said Democrats are watching  Republicans in the state Senate and how races have already shaped up for November, including the seat currently occupied by Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson.

“I think the voters over there felt like she doesn't listen to what they have to say when it [comes] to charter schools,” Biafore said of Rucker. “They were not in favor of them — but yet she did everything in her power to make sure that that passed — and I think that she lost touch with folks over there.”

Jefferson County Sheriff Pete Dougherty, a Democrat, is running against Rucker for the state’s 16th Senatorial District. Both are uncontested in their respective primaries and will face off in November. 

But Biafore said she and the Democrats are closely watching other Republicans primary races, especially Carmichael’s.

“He's at the top of our list, should he even make it through the primary,” Biafore said. “But, we're looking at taking him out.”

Parties Split On Absentee Mail-In Voting

While each party looks forward to seeing who will make the ballot come November, another ideological battle is brewing this election cycle: expanded absentee voting because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. 

Following President Donald Trump’s lead, Republicans across the country are taking issue with the widespread implementation of absentee voting through mail.  Fisher, for one, questionedthe integrity of widespread use of the practice.

“There are reasons why people vote absentee. And so that is certainly valid. But in terms of this upcoming election, we're really encouraging people encouraging Republicans to vote early in person or vote on Election Day in person, if at all possible,” Fisher said.

West Virginia’s chief elections officer, Secretary of State Mac Warner, recently sent allegations of mail-in fraud to the state’s U.S. Attorneys for further investigation. Details of the alleged fraud scheme are scant at this point and U.S. Attorneys Mike Stuart and William Powell have offered no insight as to what, if any, charges may be brought.

As the battle over absentee mail-in voting continues, Biafore argues the practice has been around for some time and works just fine.

“The real disappointment I find is that the governor and the Attorney General and the Secretary of State also worked with the county, the state chairmen, and came up with this plan, introduced this plan and now, all of a sudden, it's not a good plan,” Biafore said. “I think that's unfortunate.”

West Virginia Wesleyan’s Rupp said voters should expect to see more nontraditional ways of voting being used in the future. He said the squabble over absentee voting misses the true intent of our election system and democracy in general. 

“My belief is that within 10 years, we'll probably not only be voting by mail, we'll probably be doing it online — if we have the technology to do it,” Rupp said. “Because the key isn't showing up on Election Day. The key is a referendum that is honest for voters to express their opinion.”

The deadline to submit an application for an absentee ballot is Wednesday, June 3. Those mail-in ballots must be postmarked by Election Day, Tuesday, June 9. Early voting starts Wednesday, May 27, and runs through the Saturday before the election.