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W.Va. House balance could shift

Election 2012
Nov. 04, 2012 @ 10:34 PM

CHARLESTON -- The general election battle for the West Virginia Legislature has cost $2.7 million, with non-candidate groups spending nearly $480,000 on ads meant to influence the state Senate and House of Delegates races, campaign finance reports show.

The candidates, meanwhile, still had another $2.1 million on hand Oct. 21 as their campaigns entered the home stretch.

This election is the first to decide who represents districts redrawn after the 2010 Census. Democrats hold majorities in both chambers. While that party dominates the Senate, Republicans need just 16 seats to take over the 100-member House. Even coming close to that goal would affect the balance of power in that chamber, said political science professor Robert Rupp of West Virginia Wesleyan College.

The number of seats the GOP has on each committee, for instance, reflects their overall share of the chamber.

"There's a tipping point, and Republicans don't need a majority to get there," Rupp said.

The spending shows the GOP and its allies have focused on House seats in such places as Jefferson, Kanawha, Boone and Preston counties. All told, candidates for delegate have spent nearly $1.4 million on their general election campaigns, including $739,000 during the latest Sept. 24 to Oct. 21 reporting period.

But as they try to retain control of the House, Democratic candidates have both outraised Republicans, $1 million to $618,000, and outspent them, $833,000 to $555,000. House Democrats also had larger campaign balances, $1.1 million to $560,000, as of Oct. 21.

"I keep looking for this iceberg that's out there. It's just not there," Rupp said of evidence that the chamber will flip. "We're in a transition, but it's very slow and measured."

While the House races may offer the chance for gains by Republicans there, the Senate contests are a different matter. The GOP enters the election with just six of 34 seats in that chamber. With half the Senate on the ballot, seven of the Democratic incumbents running have spent little or no money because they're unopposed. The same is true for just one Republican.

But Mercer County auto dealer Bill Cole has made his race with Sen. Mark Wills the most expensive general election matchup for the Legislature. The Republican has spent more than $237,000 to unseat the freshman Democrat, after loaning his campaign $190,000. Wills has received nearly as much as Cole from contributors, in the $40,000 range, but had spent less than $39,000. Cole had nearly twice the campaign balance of Wills as of Oct. 21, $20,000 to $12,500.

Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, has attracted the most money from general election contributors among legislative candidates, nearly $95,000. He's facing a challenge from Republican Jim Ruland, who has self-financed with $75,000. Spending in their general election contest has reached $223,000.

Jefferson County is also home to several of the priciest House races.

Democrat Stephen Skinner has spent $45,000 to Republican Elliot Simon's $16,200 in a bid to succeed retiring Democratic Delegate John Doyle. Theirs is the top House race for per-seat spending. Delegate Tiffany Lawrence, a Democrat, and Jill Upson had each spent around $20,000, but the GOP challenger had more than twice as much left on hand, $30,000. Democrat John Maxey, meanwhile, has outspent Republican Paul Espinosa by nearly 2-1 in the county's new single-seat district.

Lawyer John McCuskey remains the top House fundraiser, with nearly $61,000. He's among four Republicans running in Kanawha County's 35th District, seeking to unseat one or more of its three incumbent Democrats. That four-seat race also has major spenders with Democratic Delegate Bobby Hatfield, GOP nominee Suzette Raines and former state tax commissioner Chris Morris, a Democrat.

Republican Joshua Nelson has spent more than $22,000 to the $10,300 from Delegate Larry Barker, D-Boone, in their single-seat race. Coal interests have aided Nelson as well as the GOP's Randy Smith as he challenges Delegate Stan Shaver. Smith has outspent Shaver, a Preston County Democrat, by nearly 3-1 and had twice the campaign balance as of Oct. 21.

Non-candidate groups have targeted all of these races and others, with the $480,000 they've spent split roughly down the middle as the two parties jockey for control.

The GOP-run West Virginia House Political Action Committee had just $2,100 on hand Oct. 21, according to its report for the filing period. But it has since spent $104,000 in last-minute ads attacking Democratic legislative candidates or promoting Republicans, according to reports posted last week by the Secretary of State's office.

The state AFL-CIO has devoted $154,210 toward ads targeting Republicans and promoting Democrats. Other major non-candidate spenders include the pro-Democratic West Virginia Building & Construction Trades, accounting for $73,000 of the total, and the Republican GOPAC West Virginia, with $48,000.

These interest groups are also key sources for campaign contributions. The Building & Construction Trades PAC, for instance, has provided $70,000 mostly to Democrats, while the state Regional Council of Carpenters has given $43,000. Democrats are also the prime beneficiaries of $57,000 distributed by the PAC for plaintiffs' lawyers.

Candidates have received $36,000 from West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, with three-fourths of that aiding Republicans. The corporate law firm of Steptoe & Johnson has given $22,500 with 70 percent of that going to Democrats. Other groups have given roughly the same amount to each party, including the state Auto and Truck Dealers Association, which has contributed $29,000, and the state Hospital Association, which has donated $32,600.

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Lawrence Messina covers the statehouse for The Associated Press. Follow him at http://twitter.com/lmessina

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