Eric Douglas Published

Gubernatorial Candidates Jump Into Race Early

A row of voting booths. An image of the American flag can be seen on each booth with large printed letters beneath each flag that reads "VOTE" in all caps.Vesperstock/Adobe Stock

The West Virginia Primary Election is May 14 of next year, but candidates are already declaring their intention to run for the governor’s office.  

As News Director Eric Douglas learned when he spoke with Marshall Political Science Professor Marybeth Beller, it all comes down to money. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Douglas: By our count, we now have seven candidates who’ve declared for the governor’s office: Chris Miller, Moore Capito, Mac Warner, J.B. McCuskey, Rashida Yost, Marshall Wilson, and most recently, Patrick Morrisey. Why are they declaring so early?

Beller: There are two big reasons. The first main reason is to intimidate the opposition. And that actually has two related parts to it. Donors want to influence the process, and it’s very important to donors that they get a candidate who’s going to favor their policy outcomes. The first or second candidates are heavily evaluated by donors and not knowing that others might sign on, donors often need to make quick decisions to say which of these candidates is going to best put forward their policy preferences. 

You might recall there is interest group called Emily’s List. Emily’s List stands for “Early Money Is Like Yeast.” If you bake, you know how important a bit of yeast is. Early donations that come on board signal to other donors that they might also want to start chipping in. That has the reverberating effect for my second point of intimidating the opposition. 

Voters look for these cues, and when they see a candidate that has a large war chest, or a war chest that is building, that gives voters confidence to say, “Oh look. Others see this candidate as having real merit, this might be somebody I should follow.” And so voters sign on also. Getting in there early makes a difference. 

Douglas: If somebody gets in early, gets a donor to donate the maximum amount, or however much they donate, it’s less likely that donor will also donate to a direct competitor’s campaign.

Beller: Once a donor commits, then the donor stays just with that sole candidate. Now, especially with medium and large size businesses, those people are more likely to spread their donations out over many candidates and sometimes multiple parties in order to secure influence. But especially with single donors, once people commit, they tend to stick with the person to whom they’ve committed.

Douglas: How does this shake out? I’m not asking you to guess who’s going to win, but it’s got to put a lot of stress on the party. 

Beller: My second point, answering your question as to why candidates jump on board early on in the process, is that, particularly if they are an incumbent, they owe it to their party to give the party time to recruit viable candidates to replace them in those seats.

When you see these people who are incumbents, who are well known, signaling early on that they want to move to a different office, it’s a gesture to their party, that allows their party to start recruiting candidates. They have an interest not only in seeking the offices they want, but also in preserving the power of their party, and to leave your party high and dry late in the season means you run the risk of allowing the other party to take the seat you’re vacating.

Douglas: Officially, candidates actually don’t really declare their candidacy until January of 2024.

Beller: That’s right, when the Secretary of State makes that open and available. 

Douglas: These are pre-candidacy, but it does allow them to start raising funds.

Beller: Yes, it allows them to start raising funds to build that bandwagon of support. It also allows other candidates to say, “Hey, look, we’re gonna have an open seat in this office.” 

Douglas: It’s gonna be an interesting election, isn’t it?

Beller: Fascinating. So many of the incumbents have really had time in office to build expertise to know how to form coalitions and could use that experience to be very effective in higher office. 

A third thing to keep in mind is that many times candidates will run for an office, knowing that they don’t have a very viable chance of being elected. But they’re using that opportunity to gain greater name recognition, to build more contacts, so that in an election down the road, they become more viable. And I think what we’re gonna see this term is that a lot of candidates, knowing that it’s not likely they’re going to secure the position they’re running for, are actually going to use that to build momentum for the future. 

Douglas: Any other thoughts about the legislature or any big surprises you see coming up in West Virginia?

Beller: Not necessarily for 2024, but the Democratic Party in this state has recently reorganized. It has new leadership, and a lot of Democrats are feeling hopeful. The party has a lot to do to rebuild, and might be able to take some legislative seats in 2024, but I think moving past that, the Democratic Party could become viable again in the state.

The legislative policies that were passed this year are going to have financial repercussions. If they’re successful, it’s going to be very, very good for the Republican Party. But in two to four years, we’re going to be able to see what the result of those fiscal policies are. And if they’re not successful for the state, the Democratic Party could really take back some seats and gain power. 

Douglas: If the tax cuts don’t work out then it’s fodder for the Democrats. 

Beller: Schools, social services, roads, all of those must be maintained. And this past session, there are some problems we haven’t yet solved. The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) is going to become more solvent, but that’s going to be done on the backs of the employees. And it’s very tough, because the across the board raises are not going to meet the increasing charges for their health care. But also, the employment problem in our prisons has not been solved. I think that is an ongoing problem. It requires money. And what we’ve done is to just put forward some very heavy tax cuts. It might work to bring in more revenue, but it may not.