Dave Mistich Published

Top 10 Races to Watch in West Virginia’s Primary Election


West Virginia rarely makes its way onto a national spotlight in election season, but this year’s primary has been a bit of a different story. With campaign stops from three remaining presidential candidates all last week, the state felt a bit of the spotlight.

But the presidential primary isn’t nearly the most interesting or important race here in West Virginia. Also coming Tuesday is the first ever non-partisan general election for a seat on the state Supreme Court, a fierce primary for the Democratic Party’s governor’s race and many other notable races around the statehouse.

Here are ten races to keep an eye on during Tuesday’s election:

1. Our First Not-So-Nonpartisan Supreme Court Election

Talk about unintended consequences! When GOP leaders took over the legislature and passed a raft of election reforms, they never dreamed it could lead to the comeback of one of their greatest enemies.

But it might.

The GOP championed the non-partisan election of judges, which means the one and only judicial election now occurs on primary day.


Credit McGraw Campaign

Five candidates are vying for one seat, held by current Justice Brent Benjamin. And because a simple plurality is enough to win, it is possible the next Supreme Court justice will receive only 21 percent of the primary vote.

There’s been little public polling on the race, except for a February poll by Orion Strategies. It showed former Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw with 25 percent support – more than the other candidates put together (however, a whopping 55 percent were undecided at the time.)

Since then, outside groups have dropped millions into the race, including $2.6 million from the Republican State Leadership Committee and about $500,000 from Just Courts For West Virginia PAC.

The GOP group is running ads attacking McGraw. Meanwhile, candidate Beth Walker has a massive television ad campaign and has garnered the support of the state GOP establishment.

We’ll be watching to see if that spending takes her over the top, or if McGraw rides his name recognition to a plurality win – or if some third candidate walks through the rubble created by these two candidates and snatches the prize.


2. Democratic Gubernatorial Race

While Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Cole runs unopposed in his party’s primary, three Democrats are vying for the state’s highest office.

Recent polling shows billionaire businessman Jim Justice leading with 37 percent of the primary vote over current former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s 23 percent and state Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler’s 19 percent in the Democratic primary.

The same poll also puts Justice ahead of Cole in the general election should he win Tuesday. But that’s a big if, as Justice continues to take heat for unpaid business taxes.

3. Clinton vs. Sanders

Clinton, Sanders

Credit Seth Wenig / AP Photo
AP Photo

While all signs point to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton capturing the Democratic presidential nomination over U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sanders has shown no indication of dropping out of the race.

Mathematically speaking, there are enough delegates left in the national picture for Sanders to squeak out the nomination and the superdelegates won’t be counted until the party’s convention in late July.

With the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) both garnering poor receptions in southern West Virginia and Sanders holding four events in a week in a half, the Vermont senator seems to have given it his all here in the state–and could very well pull off the win.

4. The Fight to Topple Rep. Mooney

In 2014, Alex Mooney overcame the carpetbagger label to win the 2nd Congressional seat.

But he only won by 3 percent in a year when other Republicans cleaned house in West Virginia, and in a district Shelley Moore Capito routinely won by double-digit margins. Democrats hope this year, they have a shot to take it back.

Five Democrats are vying to take Mooney on in the fall. The best-known three are former state Delegate Mark Hunt, lawyer and radio talk show host Harvey Peyton, and lawyer and veteran Cory Simpson.

Hunt has tried for Congress before and failed. Peyton has built up name recognition as a host in the Charleston area, but may lack name recognition in other parts of the 2nd District, especially the Eastern Panhandle.

Simpson is a neophyte, but has raised significant money and garnered the endorsement of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Speaking of Gazette-Mail endorsements, the newspaper skipped over Mooney in the GOP primary and supported his opponent – small business owner Mark Savitt, who has waged a low-budget campaign to topple Mooney.

5. House Speaker Armstead Takes on Pro-Union Republican

House Speaker Tim Armstead is facing two Republican challengers in his May 10 primary race, Clendenin’s Ron Shamblin and Lewis Taylor of Charleston. Shamblin, in particular, said it was Armstead’s stances on labor issues that pushed him to run for the seat.

“Just watching the attack on the working class this session,” Shamblin said, “that’s when I decided myself, you know, I need to stand up.”


Credit Ashton Marra / West Virginia Public Broadcasting
West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Shamblin is a union crane operator and said it’s bills like the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage and passage of a Right-to-Work measure that inspired him to work, but maintains his values align with the Republican Party and would never consider changing.

Armstead defended the bills saying in 2014 West Virginia voters sent a loud and clear message- the things the state has done for the past 80 years weren’t working and they wanted change.

Democrat Melissa Huffman and Mountain Party candidate Jeffrey will face the Republican winner in the general election in November.

6. Senate Majority Leader Faces ‘Family Values’ Attacks from Left and Right


Credit Martin Valent / West Virginia Public Broadcastinglative Photography
West Virginia Public Broadcastinglative Photography

Mitch Carmichael is taking fire from both sides.

On the right, Carmichael is being pummeled by the Family Policy Council, which is targeting him because he failed to support their preferred version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Carmichael’s emotional speech is credited with helping to kill the bill in the Senate.

On the left, Carmichael is being attacked by a union-funded group called West Virginia Family Values. Unions are upset over Carmichael’s successful efforts to pass Right to Work and overturn the prevailing wage.

The group’s radio ads focus not on these issues, but Carmichael’s deposition in the sentencing of an acquaintance for child sexual abuse. Carmichael is not tied to the charges in any way, but a radio ad tries to connect him to it. Carmichael called the ad “despicable.”

7. After Being Beaten, Ojeda Stays Focused on the Senate’s 7th District


After being brutally attacked on Sunday night, military veteran and Senate candidate Richard Ojeda became thrust into the national spotlight.


Credit Richard Ojeda / via Facebook
via Facebook
Military veteran and state Senate candidate Richard Ojeda was brutally beaten Sunday.

  National media outlets began to pick up the story after Ojeda and his family posted photos of him in the hospital following the attack. Questions began to circulate over the motivation for the attack and Ojeda and his family hinted at foul play related to the election, with his wife telling the Charleston Gazette-Mail, “Every day there’s something. If you stand up to run against people who have controlled this state for decades this is what you get.”

On Sunday. Sen. Art Kirkendoll–Ojeda’s opponent–said he had heard about the attack and that he does not condone violence.

On his Facebook page, Ojeda wrote: “I am now even more dedicated to the cause. This doesn’t scare me and I don’t quit! This was premeditated and there was a reason the guy did this.”

Suspect Jonathan Porter has been arrested and charged in the beating.

8. Newly Vacated State Senate Seats

After the 2014 election results came in, the West Virginia Senate was left in a tie, 17 Democrats had won seats and 17 Republicans. The balance of power shifted with a controversial party switch, but that 18-16 majority is on the line during the 2016 election. The race becomes even more important when you consider the longtime senators who have either chosen to retire or give up their seats to seek other offices.

The most notable, of course, are Senate President Bill Cole and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler who have both chosen runs for governor over their legislative seats, but long-serving Democrats Sen. Herb Snyder and Sen. Bill Laid both chose not to seek re-election this term. That leaves three Democratic and one Republican seat up for grabs come November.

9. Two of Arch Moore’s Grandchildren Running in the House

Three term Republican Gov. Arch Moore’s legacy at the West Virginia statehouse could be carried on if two of his grandchildren get their way. Moore Capito, son of Republican U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, and Riley Moore are both running for seats in the House of Delegates.

Capito is one of 16 candidates running for a House seat in the state’s 35th district. Covering parts of the Kanawha Valley, it’s a multimember district that boasts four seats. Seven other candidates on the ballot are Republicans, including notable names like House Finance Chair Eric Nelson and 2014 candidate for the 2nd Congressional District Charlotte Lane.

Moore is attempting to beat out one other Republican, Daniel Swisher, in his race for an open seat in the state’s 67th District. If Moore pulls out a win, he will face another lineage in West Virginia politics, Democrat Rod Snyder, son of long-time state Sen. Herb Snyder.

10. The Race Against Apathy


Credit David Smith / AP Photo
AP Photo

Voter turnout, or the lack thereof, has been the biggest election story in West Virginia in recent years.

Only 19.7 percent of eligible voters turned out in West Virginia’s 2014 primary election – the lowest turnout in the state’s modern history. And in the 2014 general election? The state had the lowest voter turnout in the nation at 37.3 percent.

Things may be turning around in 2016, however, if early voting totals are any indication of Tuesday’s voter turnout. The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office reported Monday the state had hit record levels with more than 100,000 West Virginians taking to the polls early to cast ballots.

Such numbers are a stark contrast to the message assured Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump brought to Charleston last week, as he told supporters not to vote. “Stay at home,” he told the crowd, “and get twice as many people to vote in November.”