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2018 Midterms

Why the Perfect Red-State Democrat Lost



Taylor Sappington in Nelsonville, Ohio. Sappington ran in the midterm elections for state representative of Ohio’s 94th district as a Democrat. Photo: Ty Wright for The New York Times

Taylor Sappington is exactly the kind of candidate his party should want in Ohio. But he couldn’t get union support.

Taylor Sappington heard the call like so many other Democrats in the year after Nov. 8, 2016. He had seen Donald Trump coming, homing in on his little town of Nelsonville, Ohio, in the state’s impoverished Appalachian southeast. The town of 5,300 people had voted for Barack Obama twice by large margins.

Trump was Nelsonville’s pick in 2016, though it was more by default than acclamation. Trump won there with less than a majority, with 30 percent fewer votes than Obama had gotten four years earlier.

Sappington, a 27-year-old Ohio native, took this as evidence that Nelsonville was not beyond redemption, that the town where he had grown up in hard circumstances — the son of a single mother who was for a time on food stamps, living deep in the woods in a manufactured home — wasn’t really Trump country.

Not so long ago at all, Ohio was considered the quintessential swing state — it had, after all, voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election starting with 1964. Something happened this decade, though. The 2010 national “shellacking” of Democrats left a particularly strong mark in Ohio. The Republicans who assumed control of Columbus pulled off an aggressive gerrymandering of federal and state legislative districts. In 2012, when Obama won the state for the second time, Republicans held 12 of the state’s 16 congressional seats despite winning only 52 percent of the total House vote.

The state’s makeup had been trending red, too. At a time when the share of white voters without college degrees — who are fast becoming the Republican base — decreased nationwide, it held strong in Ohio. The state was drawing relatively few immigrants, its education system was sliding in national rankings and, with its smaller cities and towns falling far behind thriving Columbus, it was losing many young college grads to jobs out of state.

Not Taylor Sappington, though. He wanted to stay. He had gotten hooked on national politics in high school, around the time he read a book on Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. And he had gotten out of Nelsonville, winning nearly a full ride to George Washington University.

Barack Obama, then a presidential candidate, at a campaign event on March 3, 2008, in Nelsonville, Ohio. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

But he felt out of place in D.C. — the wealthy students who abused expensive drugs and thought nothing of paying big cover charges at clubs, the dead-eyed people in suits rushing down the sidewalks — and he’d come back to finish at Ohio University, down the road from Nelsonville, in Athens. He took a break from school to work for Obama’s 2012 campaign in Ohio. And even before he had his diploma in hand, he’d run for, and won, a seat on the Nelsonville City Council.

The council seat came with only a $100 monthly stipend. So Sappington kept working as a waiter at the Texas Roadhouse in Athens. Later on, he added another gig: fixing broken smartphone screens in partnership with his younger brother, who drove an hour each way to work as a correctional officer at the prison in Chillicothe.

Sappington was content to stick with this combination for a while. He scratched out a living while pushing his agenda on the council: finding the money to fix the town’s rutted roads, demolishing vacant homes, pushing for a mayoral system of government.

Then came 2016, which gave Trump an eight-percentage-point win in Ohio and swept in a new state representative for the district that included Nelsonville, which had been held by a Democrat for the previous eight years.

It was now held by a young Republican, Jay Edwards, who had been three years ahead of Sappington at Nelsonville-York High. He was a star quarterback who’d gone on to play linebacker at Ohio University, the scion of a prosperous local family.

Donald Trump at a campaign event on Oct. 13, 2016, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Photo: Ty Wright/Getty Images

Sappington was still mourning the election when, just a few weeks later, he confronted darkness of a different order. His longtime boyfriend — a gentle autodidact who had taught himself to build furniture and musical instruments when not working at Ruby Tuesday — committed suicide, at age 25.

At the next council meeting, Sappington spoke about the death, and the need for better mental health services in southeast Ohio. Edwards was in the audience, as both Sappington and another council member recall, and stood up to leave in the middle of his remarks. (Edwards declined to comment on the record about that meeting or the race.)

A few months later, Sappington suffered another loss: the suicide of one of his cousins. A high school friend, a former service member, was succumbing to opiate addiction.

The gloom seemed relentless. Sappington decided the best way to fight it was to have something else to think about. Late last year, he made up his mind to run against Edwards, to reclaim the 94th House District in the Ohio statehouse for the Democrats.

He knew it would be a challenge. He was young. He would be vastly outspent. On the other hand, the district had been blue until very recently, and 2018 was promising to be a strong Democratic year. And he could, at least, count on support from unions and national progressive groups.

What he didn’t reckon with was that those organizations were already making a very different sort of calculus about his district, and about Ohio in general.

In December 2017, with the help of students at Ohio University, Sappington produced an arresting two-minute campaign video that included drone footage panning over Nelsonville, with its handsome town square lined with semi-abandoned brick buildings. “Why is it that so many will grow up without parents because of this drug crisis? Why is it that our graduates struggle to find good-paying jobs?” he said in the video. “So much of this seems invisible in Columbus.”

The video was so powerful that the Ohio House Democratic Caucus played it at a fundraiser in Columbus. Sappington learned of this secondhand, he said, because he wasn’t invited to the event. In general, he was having difficulty getting assistance from party leaders in Columbus, who seemed to be ranking candidates’ eligibility for support based in large part on the money they’d been able to raise. It wasn’t easy for a waiter in the poorest corner of the state to get people to write him checks, but Sappington had been prepared for that challenge.

What he hadn’t been prepared for was the lack of organizational support. Progressive groups in Washington and New York were focused mostly on congressional seats — never mind that it was state legislatures that would determine congressional lines for the next decade.

An early voter casts her ballot at the Athens County Board of Elections office in Athens, Ohio, on Oct. 29, 2016. Photo: Ty Wright/Bloomberg via Getty Images

But most confounding were the unions. One by one, they started supporting Edwards. And not just the building-trades unions, which sometimes side with Republicans, but the Service Employees International Union and the public sector unions — AFSCME, the Ohio Education Association and Ohio Civil Service Employees Association. The only endorsements Sappington received were from the National Association of Social Workers and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers.

He was stunned. He was about as pro-union as one could be. In his video, he had mentioned his earlier activism against the law that Ohio Republicans had pushed through in 2011, eliminating collective bargaining for public employees, which was later overturned by referendum. His mother had been active in AFSCME; his brother belonged to the Civil Service Employees Association. And Sappington himself was a low-wage service worker. Yet he was losing labor support to a Republican who had supported a state budget that effectively reduced funding for education and who was a staunch opponent of abortion rights, a position at odds with many public employee union members.

What he learned when he asked around, and what I later confirmed, was that the unions were, in many cases, making a grimly pragmatic decision in his race and others around the state. The Democrats had fallen to such a woeful level in Ohio state government that unions felt as if they had no choice but to make friends, or at least nonenemies, with some Republicans, in hopes of staving off anti-union measures such as “right-to-work” legislation and elimination of prevailing-wage standards.

For years, unions in the Midwest have rightly prided themselves on delivering the Democrats far higher margins among white working-class union members than among their nonunion brethren. But Trump had strained that bond in some unions, drawing support from many members even as their leaders had remained nominally committed to Hillary Clinton. Most unions were back on board with the Democrats in Midwestern federal and statewide races this year. In state legislative races in Ohio, though, unions hedged their bets.

The Ohio Education Association, for instance, endorsed 13 Republicans in state House races and three in State Senate races, while staying neutral in some others.

“If we were just looking at this as a partisan exercise and ‘to the winner go the spoils,’ we’d have been on the outside looking in, and we can’t let that happen,” said Scott DiMauro, vice president of the Ohio Education Association. “Republicans have supermajorities in both houses, and we’ve got to work with both parties to make progress on key issues.”

Joe Weidner, communications director for AFSCME’s statewide Council 8, gave a similar rationale. “We don’t just push the button for the Democrat,” he said. “It’s for the people who are behind us and will support us and we’ll support them. Party is important for us; we align a lot with the Democrats. But we also have Republicans we align with.”

Seen from one side, this was realpolitik. Seen from another, it was self-fulfilling fatalism, consigning the unions’ Democratic allies to permanent minority status.

Sappington forged on without the unions. His campaign’s slogan: “Health Care. Infrastructure. Integrity.” He had the help of a dedicated band of supporters, including an Ohio University student, Jordan Kelley, who was on leave from his studies while he saved money for his final semesters working at Buffalo Wild Wings. Bit by bit, Sappington raised money, bringing in about $80,000. That was enough for radio ads, postage for thousands of handwritten postcards and stipends for campaign workers.

But it was far less than the $430,000 that Edwards had raised since 2016, nearly half of which was from unions. He shared much of this largess with others in his party, which meant the unions’ money was also helping Republicans who were less pro-labor than Edwards.

In August, Sappington got the ultimate affirmation of his candidacy: He was one of 81 candidates across the entire country endorsed by Obama. That imprimatur cast the unions’ position in an even starker light: They were now lined up behind a Republican against a Democrat endorsed by the still-popular ex-president.

Other organizational backing remained slow in coming. The state House Democratic Caucus sent a young campaign manager and paid half of his salary, but he was ill-suited to rural organizing and he stayed only six weeks. Sappington struggled to get Democratic candidates for statewide office to campaign alongside him in the district. One national progressive group whose help he had sought sent no money, but did send, as a gesture of moral support, a package that included nuts and dried fruit.

On the night before the election, when other candidates might have done final phone-banking, Sappington had to report to Texas Roadhouse for a staff meeting on new food-safety measures. The next day, he traveled around the district to check on turnout levels. At night he headed to a vacation cabin in the woods that he had rented to watch election returns. His friends and family assembled to eat his mom’s chili and watch MSNBC.

Sappington sat with a laptop, monitoring the numbers trickling in from around the 94th District. Athens had turned out strongly, and he’d racked up big majorities there. But he’d been swamped in the rural areas. Edwards’ margin was the exact same as it had been against a different Democratic opponent two years ago: 58 percent to 42 percent.

The numbers were bleak for Democrats across the state. Sherrod Brown had won re-election to the Senate against a flawed opponent, by about six percentage points, but he was an anomaly. Democrats had not managed to win a single one of those gerrymandered congressional seats. They still held only four of 16, despite winning 48 percent of the congressional vote. They had lost not only the election for governor but for every other statewide office.

They’d picked up only four seats in the state House and lost one in the Senate, leaving Republican supermajorities in both chambers — this despite Democrats having won nearly a majority of total votes in those races, a sign of just how effectively gerrymandered districts were. In a way, the Democrats’ failure to make big gains had affirmed the unions’ self-protective strategy; but that failure had been partly abetted by the unions themselves.

There was another aspect, though, to the failure of the unions, state party leaders and progressive organizations to strongly support candidates like Taylor Sappington. He is a native of small-town Ohio, working-class not only in his roots but in his own livelihood: exactly the sort of elected official whom Democrats say they need to cultivate in areas where the party is losing ground.

At 9:45 p.m., Sappington slipped out of the cabin to call Jay Edwards and concede the race.

When he came back into the cabin, his face was drawn. He said that Edwards hadn’t immediately known who was calling, and a hard conversation was made harder.

“Hey, Jay,” he recalled saying. “It’s Taylor Sappington.”

“Taylor who?” said Edwards.

This story was co-published with The New York Times. It was originally published by ProPublica.

2018 Midterms

Democratic Gains in Midterms were Largest in Rural Areas



Photo: Win McNamee

Democratic Senate candidates cut the party’s rural deficit compared to the presidential vote in 2016. But Republicans still outperformed Democrats by 22 points in 28 states we studied.

Republicans gained seats in the U.S. Senate in the last election, but it’s Democrats who gained in popularity among rural voters.

The Daily Yonder looked at the currently available Senate vote and compared those figures to the presidential election of 2016. When we grouped counties by metropolitan categories, we found that Democrats improved their performance across the board from 2016 and that the biggest gains came in the more rural counties.

Comparing presidential elections to midterm elections is a bit of an apples-to-oranges exercise. But that doesn’t keep analysts from digging in. So, in the interest of keeping rural in the conversation, let’s take a look at rural voter preferences this year compared to 2016.

Note: The Senate election data we are using is from Dave Leip’s election atlas. We omitted California because there was no Republican on the ballot. That left 28 races for which data was available. There’s a list at the bottom of the article. We counted the votes for Vermont’s Bernie Sanders, who is an independent, in the Democratic column.

First, let’s look at the raw vote.

Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Photo: Daily Yonder

Midterm elections always attract fewer voters than presidential elections. So we expect the raw vote total to decline. But in rural counties, the raw number of voters who selected the Democratic candidate actually increased from 2016 to 2018. Democratic Senate candidates in the most rural counties got 11% more votes this year than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That’s despite the fact that 12 million fewer people voted in those states overall.

Meanwhile, the raw number of votes for Republican Senate candidates declined from Donald Trump’s raw vote total in 2016 in every category of county – from the smallest rural areas to the largest metropolitan ones. The declines were more pronounced in small metropolitan areas (metros with fewer than 250,000 residents) and rural counties.

The Democratic gains are also striking when we look at the proportion (or percentage) of the two-party vote the candidates received.

Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections. Photo: Daily Yonder

Democratic Senate candidates in 2018 did better than Clinton in the two-party percentage vote in every category of county (from urban centers to rural areas). Again, the Democratic gains were biggest in rural counties. Democrats improved their performance by 9 percentage points in the most rural counties. (As a percentage basis [vs. a percentage point basis], that’s a whopping 30% increase.)

The vote in these Senate races is an interesting midterm snapshot of rural voter opinion. It’s not determinative for 2020, however. Even though Democrats substantially improved their performance with rural voters in these states this year, they still lost the popular vote in rural counties. Democrats trimmed the Republican margin of victory in the states we examined from 40 points to 22. If the patterns we’ve seen in elections in this century hold, Democrats will have to do better than that to win the White House in 2020.

States included in this analysis are the following: Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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2018 Midterms

Outside Groups Spent Big in West Virginia in 2018, But Public Filings Don’t Show the Full Picture



A composite image of various digital ads that ran in the lead-up to the 2018 general election.

When you opened your mailbox, watched television or listened to commercial radio in the lead-up to the election, you and other would-be voters were likely bombarded by political advertisements. Like in elections past, some of those materials were paid for by candidate committees and are easily identified as such. But the sources of the materials from other groups — known as independent expenditures and not authorized by a candidate or a candidate committee — are often more difficult to discern.

Advocates for campaign finance reform say current state law falls short in enabling the public to track who is funding some of these groups in a centralized and uniform manner.

“We have all of these groups that are reporting to the Secretary of State’s office. But I think it is important to note to that these reports don’t tell us a whole lot as to who is behind these groups. Some of these groups don’t disclose who is making contributions and those who do use shell corporations or other means to keep things in the dark,” said Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections.

Tracking state-level spending by federally registered groups can be difficult. Some of these groups use loopholes in West Virginia’s campaign financing laws to avoid disclosing donors and expenditures to the Secretary of State’s office. In addition, federal campaign finance law does not require these groups to disclose details regarding the candidates or races they targeted in state-level races.

During the 2018 general election cycle, independent expenditure political action committees registered in West Virginia spent more than $5.4 million to meddle in House of Delegates, Senate and Supreme Court races. That figure only represents expenditures filed with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.

Mountain State Values, WV Patriots for Liberty Pushed for Democrats with Union Backing

Union-backed, pro-Democrat groups represent a significant chunk of independent expenditures this election. Mountain State Values focused mostly on House of Delegates races, while WV Patriots for Liberty exclusively targeted state Senate races.

Mountain State Values received more than $1.8 million in total contributions for the 2018 midterms. These donations came mostly from labor-backed political action committees and organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers’ Solidarity fund, the West Virginia state Building & Construction Trades Council, the Mid-Atlantic Laborers Political Education Fund, the West Virginia AFL-CIO, and the AFT-West Virginia Committee on Political Education.

Mountain State Values targeted 18 of the 67 districts in the House of Delegates and on one race in the state Senate — District 17 — by spending money opposing incumbent Tom Takubo and supporting Terrell Ellis. Takubo won the race by more than 4 percentage points.

An ad from Mountain State Values supporting House of Delegates 36th District Democratic candidates Amanda-Estep Burton, Del. Andrew Robinson and Del. Larry Rowe. They all won election in the three-member district.

WV Patriots for Liberty took a similar tactic in fundraising but spent funds differently. The group raised more than $1 million from trade unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 132, the Engineers Political Education Committee and the West Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council.

Every bit of $832,561.38 spent by WV Patriots for Liberty went to oppose Republicans running for the state Senate in five districts — Ryan Ferns (District 1), Eric Tarr (District 4), Mark Maynard (District 6) Ed Gaunch (District 8) and Mike Oliverio (District 13).

Ferns, Gauch and Oliverio were defeated; Maynard and Tarr won their races.

Neither group responded to requests for comment about their respective donors and spending.

Former Gubernatorial Hopeful Goodwin Targets House, Senate Races with Re Set West Virginia

Former U.S. Attorney and one-time gubernatorial hopeful Booth Goodwin is listed as director of Re Set West Virginia. Filings by the group list the National Education Association, West Virginia Strong, Inc. and Expanding West Virginia Opportunities as major donors.

The organization focused on the state Senate’s 10th and 17th districts and six races in the House of Delegates — districts 12, 16, 21, 63, 65 and 67. In total, Re Set West Virginia spent $178,337.19 supporting Democrats and opposing Republicans.

Goodwin said his motivation to start the group was to make a push for Democrat candidates from within the state. He also deemed the efforts successful.

“Nearly half of the candidates that Re Set West Virginia endorsed ended up winning — even in some really tough races. We plan to do even better in 2020 in order to put the state’s politics back in the hands of leaders who are not beholden to extreme and out-of-state interests,” Goodwin said.

1863 PAC, Shale Energy Alliance Boosted Republicans, Haven’t Disclosed Donors

Two pro-Republican organizations delved into the 2018 general election but have yet to fully disclose from where their donations came. As a result, they have drawn attention from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office for those practices.

1863 PAC — which initially sprung up to support Del. Roger Hanshaw’s bid to become House Speaker — spent $281,182.33 in support of Republican House of Delegates candidates and opposed Democratic rivals. However, the group has not listed its donors on filings with the Secretary of State’s office.

Luke Thompson, a New York-based political consultant who serves as executive director of 1863 PAC said the group is in compliance with state campaign finance law.

“1863 PAC received several contributions from several hundred organizations and individuals — from numerous sectors of West Virginia’s economy — who agreed with our mission of protecting the Republican majority in the House of Delegates and protecting the speakership of Roger Hanshaw,” Thompson said.

“No contributions were above six-figures and a majority of contributions were in the three-figure range,” he added.

But public filings don’t specify where that money came from. Less than two weeks before the election the Charleston Gazette Mail reported that the Secretary of State’s office issued a cease and desist order to 1863 PAC, citing no registration as a state or federal political action committee.

Many questions about the group’s origins and efforts have centered around Riley Moore, a Republican delegate from the 67th House District who was ultimately defeated in the 2018 midterms by Democrat John Doyle.

Thompson said the idea for the group came from Moore and Hanshaw. In an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Moore disputed that characterization, saying the organization’s board created the group and dictated its focus. Hanshaw said he was told of the 1863 PAC’s establishment by Moore and said he had no involvement.

Thompson also said he and Moore coordinated on fundraising efforts, which Moore confirmed.

“I raised money for almost for every Republican that was running this election cycle,” Moore said, “and 1863 was certainly one of those entities supporting Republican candidates. As we’ve seen, there are fewer groups raising money for Republicans as compared to those who support Democrats. As such, I helped raise money for 1863.”

Moore has weaved back and forth on explaining his involvement, affiliation or knowledge of anyone at 1863 PAC. First, he told WVMetroNews he had personal relationships with those involved with the group. Later, the Gazette-Mail reportedMoore denied affiliation with 1863 PAC and declined further comment.

“I certainly encouraged somebody like Luke to get involved in West Virginia. He’s been involved in Republican politics throughout the country for a long time,” Moore told West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Hanshaw recently became House Speaker, putting Moore in line to take over as majority leader at the beginning of the 2019 legislative session. Moore and Thompson both say Moore was not involved in spending decisions made by 1863 PAC, which is in compliance with the state’s campaign finance laws.

“Some of that proof is in the pudding. Riley and [Jill] Upson lost,” said Thompson, noting no specific focus on helping Moore or Hanshaw in their respective races. “We spent for almost every Republican candidate in House races.”

Thompson pointed out that pro-Democratic independent expenditures far outspent those who aimed to help Republicans and, therefore, deemed his group’s efforts successful. He cited losses by Democratic incumbents such as Scott Brewer, Richard Iaquinta, Dana Lynch and Ricky Moye.

“We counterpunched in a year we were supposed to be on defense and the results speak for themselves,” Thompson said.

An ad from 1863 PAC in support of Del. Riley Moore. Moore, who was in line to become the next majority leader, lost to Democrat John Doyle in the 2018 general election.

Thompson noted that 1863 PAC used a targeted texting campaign — known as peer-to-peer or P2P — as part of its strategy. That tactic drew a lawsuit from Jefferson County resident Mariah Norton, who says she was spammed by text messages in support of Moore. Norton and her attorney — former Democratic House of Delegates member Stephen Skinner — say those texts were in violation of Telephone Consumer Protection Act.

The Secretary of State’s office also cited another organization for election engineering activity during this past election cycle: Shale Energy Alliance. The group was also issued a cease and desist order for not registering as a state or federal political action committee.

Republican Del. John Kelly filed a complaint against Shale Energy Alliance, which prompted the cease and desist. According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, Kelley said the group is funded by natural gas company EQT Corp. and that they targeted him in the May primary for not running legislation the company was supporting. Kelly is the vice chairman of the House Energy Committee.

Shale Energy Alliance spent $69,759.25 supporting Republicans in a handful of races between the House and Senate in the general election.

Representatives of Shale Energy Alliance could not be reached for comment.

West Virginia’s Future PAC Aimed to Keep GOP Majority in State Senate

Republican state Senate hopefuls — and even some off-ballot incumbents — got help this election cycle from a independent expenditure known as West Virginia’s Future PAC. Public filings show the group supported GOP candidates and opposed Democratic rivals.

Notable donors to West Virginia’s Future PAC leading up to the 2018 midterms include Republican Gov. Jim Justice and Cary Communications, a company owned by media mogul and Justice senior advisor Bray Cary. Each contributed $50,000 to the committee.

The Coalition for a Stronger West Virginia gave the group $75,000. The 501(c)(4)’s website states they advocate “much-needed pro-jobs policy improvements that simplify the tax code, reduce the tax burden, balance the state’s budget, end lawsuit abuse, promote a skilled workforce, and rein in regulatory costs.”

Coal company Murray Energy contributed $72,000 and donations from beer distribution companies around the state totaled more than $10,000.

According to expenditures filed with the Secretary of State’s office, West Virginia’s Future PAC offered support to Republican Senate candidates Ryan Ferns (District 1), Eric Tarr (District 4), Ed Gaunch (District 8) and Tom Takubo (District 17).

The committee also spent money to oppose Democrats in those same races, including William Ihlenfeld (District 1), Brian Prim (District 4), Richard Lindsey (District 8), and Terrell Ellis (District 17). They also spent money to oppose Bob Beach (District 13), John Unger (District 16).

Republicans will still hold a majority in the Senate — but based on results in races that West Virginia’s Future PAC targeted and tried to influence, the only Republican winners were Tarr and Takubo.

An attorney representing West Virginia’s Future PAC did not respond to a request for an interview.

National Republican Group Delves into a Handful of Statehouse Races

The Republican State Leadership Committee — a federal 527-organization with no cap on donations or expenditures — spent money on candidates in 12 House of Delegates districts and one contest in the state Senate.

Of the $45 million the group says they spent in the 2018 general election, $150,000 was dedicated to West Virginia statehouse races. RSLC president Matt Walter said that the group targeted those contests in a calculated manner.

“The first thing we do is determine what the macro environment looks like — what the likelihood of races changing and what those target districts are — so narrowing down to where the competitive races are going to be. And then sharing information with the voters of West Virginia to help them understand what the candidate stands for, and how they’ll govern once they get into the state Capitol,” Walter said.

“Depending upon the region of the state — and the composition of the district —  we are picking the most convenient and appropriate communications method to share that information with voters,” he added.

Ultimately, the RSLC appears to have been successful in a majority of its efforts.

Supreme Court Special Elections Also See Big Spending from RSLC, Other Groups

While the RSLC focused on a small number of legislative races, the bulk of the group’s spending was directed toward electing prominent Republicans to the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals — although seats on the state’s high court have been non-partisan since 2016.

The committee’s Judicial Fairness Initiative spent a total of $1,749,319.98 between former West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead and former Congressman Evan Jenkins in their respective bids for a seat on the court. According to the Secretary of State’s website, both remain registered Republicans.

Both candidates won their respective races, with Jenkins handedly winning Division 2.

The RSLC’s spending on the state Supreme Court special elections — which was more than 10 times what they spent on legislative races — was a matter of the breadth of voters they wanted to reach, Walter said.

“When you’re talking about two statewide races with multiple candidates within each of the divisions — and a state with very expensive media costs at a statewide level, given obviously the competitive U.S. Senate race and and all the activity you had during this election — it’s just more expensive to run those statewide races,” Walter explained.

West Virginians for Fair Courts was another group that got involved in the two state Supreme Court races. The group — funded in part by West Virginia Citizens against Lawsuit Abuse and the American Tort Reform Association — supported Armstead, Jenkins and “several candidates.” The group spent $334,702.11 in total. Of that figure, $250,640.11 was spent specifically on Armstead or Jenkins.

Of those expenditures, West Virginians for Fair Courts paid television stations WVVA, WTOV, and WDTV to air a 30-minute program featuring Gov. Jim Justice and his senior advisor Bray Cary. The program, titled Perfect Storm, showed Justice and Cary discussing the effectiveness of Republican policies and boosted Armstead and Jenkins. The video was promoted by and West Virginia Republican Party and was also shared on their Facebook page.

Also notable in the races for Supreme Court, Berkeley County resident William Stubblefield spent $6,639.63 in support of Division 1 candidate Chris Wilkes.

Other Groups Not Listed on the Secretary of State’s Campaign Finance Reporting System

Independent expenditures mentioned thus far in this report show the activity of groups filing with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, but there are other groups trying to sway statehouse races that may or may not be registered with the Federal Elections Commission. As a result, no centralized agency can track these disclosures in any uniform way.

For example, the Working Families Party noted in a news release following the 2018 general election that they spent $50,000 supporting Democratic candidates in four West Virginia Senate races and more than two dozen in the House of Delegates.

The director of the West Virginia independent expenditure campaign, Andrew Cockburn, said election officials told him not to bother filing disclosures with the state.

“I knew we had to report to the FEC and [the West Virginia Secretary of State] told me that since I was working with a federal PAC, basically, to get lost. They said they had lots of things to do, and they didn’t need some extra paperwork that was not required under state law,” Cockburn said.

The group is registered as a political committee with the Federal Election Commission and, therefore, is not obligated to detail its financials with the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office.

Another group known to have made independent expenditures in West Virginia statehouse races is Grow WV, Inc, another political committee registered with the Federal Election Commission.

Grow WV Inc. also made independent expenditures in West Virginia statehouse races in 2018, but public filings with the Federal Election Commission from the group do not detail the candidates they targeted. A 2014 investigation by the Sunlight Foundation found that officers with the group also held executive committee positions with the West Virginia Republican Party.

Officials with Grow WV could not be reached for comment.

Election Officials, Campaign Finance Reform Advocates Weigh In

Pushing for more transparency in donor and expenditure disclosures would require action from the Legislature.

Chuck Flannery, the deputy Secretary of State and the office’s general counsel, acknowledged loopholes in state law that prevent independent expenditure disclosures in state-level races from being able to be compiled in a centralized and uniform system.

“The West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office stands prepared to assist the Legislature in addressing campaign finance laws to get disclosure standards uniform for independent expenditures and advocate for the electronic filing of the reports to allow a quicker and more transparent access to the information to the public,” Flannery said.

Julie Archer of West Virginia Citizens for Clean Elections said closing loopholes in state campaign finance law are among the group’s priorities.

“We have been and we will continue to push for increased disclosure and transparency in who is spending money in our elections,” she said.

The Legislature’s next regular session — where many lawmakers who benefited from independent expenditures now have the ability to push for campaign financing reforms — begins Jan. 9.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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2018 Midterms

‘D’ Is for Disadvantage: Democrats have an Identity Problem in Rural America



Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., lost his re-election contest against Republican Gov. Rick Scott in a race that was so close, a number of ballots had to be recounted by hand. In this file photo, Nelson is joined by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., left, at a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Democrats are losing rural votes not because of what they propose but because rural voters identify more with the Republican Party. “Democratic” ballot initiatives do well in rural, but Democratic candidates don’t.

In politics these days, it’s not as much what is said as who says it.

The reports on the November 6 election have been largely about the growing political divide between rural and urban. Urban voters are getting more Democratic and rural voters more Republican.

We’ll see how much that actually came to pass as voting results are made final. What we can see now, however, is that Democratic candidates are paying an “identity penalty” in rural counties — they are losing votes not because of what they propose but because of the “D” that sits beside their name on the ballot.

In state after state, rural voters both rejected Democratic candidates by wide margins, but, on the same ballot, voted for very “Democratic” (if not downright liberal) positions in nonpartisan propositions and amendments.

Consider what happened in Florida. There, Democrat Bill Nelson, the incumbent U.S. senator, received just 33 percent of the votes out of the state’s rural counties.

However, these same voters were asked to vote on Amendment 4 to the state constitution. The measure would restore voting rights to convicted felons who have completed their sentences. (The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or felony sex crimes.) As many as 1.2 million Floridians who had served their time for a felony had been barred from voting – and that number was disproportionately African American.

A majority of those who had lost this right of citizenship were registered Democrats, according to a study conduced by the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. Republicans opposed Amendment 4. Gov. Rick Scott spoke against it and so did the Republican candidate for governor, Ron DeSantis. Democrats and the ACLU favored Amendment 4.

Naturally, given the “divide,” we’d expect rural voters to vote against Democrats, against the ACLU and against something that would favor African Americans. They would follow their party. Right?

The difference in Florida in rural votes for a progressive position (favored by Democrats) and a real live Democrat is just a shade over 20 percentage points. That’s what we’re calling the “identity penalty” – the difference between who makes a proposal and the proposal itself.

Now, the vote in rural Florida for Amendment 4 was still lower than the state average by just under 10 percentage points. Rural areas may be more conservative than urban areas. But the difference is within shouting distance.

In West Virginia, rural voters were slightly more likely to oppose a state constitutional amendment with language that opposes abortion rights. (For definitions of the county categories, see the list above.)

Meanwhile, the difference in party voting between rural Florida and the cities is more than 20 percentage points. Just over 33 percent of rural Floridians voted Democratic in the Senate race, compared to about 55 percent in the biggest cities.

Party is largely about identification these days, not policy. Columbia political scientist Donald Green has described the choice of political party as more like being a sports fan than a policy wonk.

Imagine walking down a hall of a large building, Green wrote, describing how people join political parties. There are gatherings happening in two separate rooms. You can look through a door and see the people in each group. You size them up, seeing what kind of clothes they wear and imagining whether they would be the kind of folks you’d want to spend time with or have your children visit. You make a judgment, pick a room and go in. You join a team.

That’s how political parties are chosen. It’s about identification and social solidarity, not issues. And that identity is strong and divided by geography. Rural residents went in one door and urban dwellers went in the other.

What we saw in Tuesday’s election, however, is that when policy is divorced from party, people can make different decisions. And it wasn’t just in Florida.

Claire McCaskill, Democratic Senate candidate (blue column), lost a majority of voters outside the most urbanized counties of the state’s largest metropolitan areas. Ballot initiatives for raising the minimum wage (green column) and reforming elections (red column) passed with a majority of voters across the state. (For definitions of the county categories, see the list above.)

In Missouri, only 27 percent of rural residents voted for incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill. (See Richard Oswald’s column.) But 53 percent of rural voters favored raising the minimum wage, limiting gerrymandering of legislative districts and putting a lid on lobbyists – all normally Democratic positions.

In Utah, 27 percent of rural residents voted for Democrat Jenny Wilson against Republican Mitt Romney for an open U.S. Senate seat. But 50 percent of rural Utah voted in favor of full Medicaid expansion, which will be paid for in part with a slight rise in the sales tax.

The Republican Utah legislature had passed a limited expansion of Medicaid. But Utah voters wanted a full expansion – which is, of course, a key component of the health care reforms passed under President Barack Obama, a.k.a. Obamacare.

Utah voters outside the urban core of major metro counties preferred the Democratic policy (expanding Medicaid — red column) to the Democratic Senate candidate (blue column). (For definitions of the county categories, see the list above.)

Medicaid expansion also passed in Nebraska and Idaho, two reliably Republican states.

There are perhaps two lessons from these results. The first, says ABC television analyst and former George W. Bush White House adviser Matt Dowd, is that so-called progressives in some states might do better by pushing referenda and amendments rather than Democratic candidates.  “Instead of trying to accomplish policy through partisan legislature,” Dowd wrote in an email, “go directly to ballot initiatives where possible.” (Dowd’s take on this phenomenon is here.)

Second, identity is not something that people easily give up. (Have you ever convinced a sports fan to change his or her allegiance?) And so the “identity penalty” Democrats pay in heavily Republican areas might be too great to overcome. Candidates might do better if they run as independents rather than as Democrats in particularly “red” states.

This would only work, Dowd says, if Democrats “step down” and refuse to offer a candidate and split the vote. Then voters will confront the issues and the “identity penalty” might not be as harsh.

The results from last week’s election would say that strategy might work.

Bill Bishop is a contributing editor and co-founder of the Daily Yonder.

This story was originally published by the Daily Yonder.

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