CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Republican Party officials in West Virginia have a chance to select their new leader this weekend.
Republicans will select a new executive director to replace Conrad Lucas, who is running for Congress in the state’s 3rd District. The unexpired term lasts until the party convention in mid-summer, when party officials will vote again for a full, 4-year term.
During a Saturday meeting at the Holiday Inn in South Charleston, about 100 members of the West Virginia Republican Executive Committee are expected to cast their votes.
The candidates are Melody Potter, a longtime party official and former Kanawha County Republican chairwoman, and Tom O’Neill, a lawyer who also has worked within the party in various roles over the years.
Both say they want to grow the party, which already holds all of West Virginia’s congressional seats but one, plus the Governor’s Mansion and majorities in both houses of the Legislature.
“I’m running for chairman because I want to build a larger, more inclusive majority that is supportive of our elected leaders’ policy themes. I don’t believe it is the prerogative of state party leadership to use the mantle of their office to push their own policy preferences,” O’Neill said in a telephone interview.
“Political parties are built through addition, not division and subtraction. We need to be out there explaining to individuals, especially young people, why voting Republican is in their best long-term interest. I don’t see that emphasis right now.”
Potter said her experience and passion set her apart.
“I love our party. I’m passionate about our platform. We have a mission to defeat Joe Manchin and to fill the ballot and to build on our majorities,” she said in a separate telephone interview.
“I’m experienced. I served on the RNC. I’ve been involved with the West Virginia party for many different roles, involved with voter registration drives, fundraising. I’ve served in just about every capacity.”
Potter has gained endorsements from a variety of state Republican political figures. Senator Shelley Moore Capito, assessing the election during a public appearance on Friday, complimented Potter’s hard work but stopped short of issuing an official endorsement.
“Melody Potter is a very strong individual, a good friend of mine. I’ve known her for years. I think she’d be a strong leader for the party,” Capito said. “I haven’t really talked to anybody else who is interested. I understand there are others who are interested, so we’ll see what happens on Saturday.”
Potter, a South Charleston resident, is a small business owner and vice president of Tri-Star Coal Sales. She was elected as the national committeewoman from West Virginia in August 2012 and has served on the RNC Resolutions Committee.
“The role of the state party and the county parties is to get Republicans elected,” Potter said. “The state party along with the national party — we do a platform every four years. The state party is not involved in policy-making but the planks of our platform should bleed over into policy. That’s what we hope to achieve.”
O’Neill, an Upshur County resident who also serves as the Buckhannon city attorney, has also held a variety of positions related to the party.
He volunteered during the 2000 campaign and later was hired to work as the Republican Party’s political director. He has also served as a member and vice chairman of the executive committee.
Some controversy within the party has focused on O’Neill’s employment by Orion Strategies, which did campaign work for some West Virginia Democrats in 2016. O’Neill says his role with the company was limited to lobbying on behalf of the aerospace industry.
“To their credit, they never involved me in their politics,” O’Neill said. “It’s an attack of guilt by association. I trust that committee members will see past this.”
O’Neill said he doesn’t want to see a party defining itself by purity tests. He said it needs to grow.
“We need a candidate committed to growing the party. I believe I’m that candidate,” he said. “I don’t want to sit back and impose purity tests on party members and say ‘If you’re not with me 100 percent of the time I have no use for you.’ I’m on the Ronald Reagan plan. If we can get along 75-80 percent of the time that’s a place I can be.”
Both candidates say they intend to run for the full term this summer.
Potter said she’ll be able to work with all parts of the party’s big tent.
“You have your conservatives, your ones that are not as conservative and on down the line. Because you have a difference of opinion does not mean you’re enemies. It just means you stay together and work harder.”
O’Neill said winning the unexpired term could provide an advantage for the race for the longer term — or it might not.
“The advantage lies in how the office holder carries themself in the next six months,” O’Neill said. “If whoever the victor is commits themselves to building a larger, broader party and growing numbers in the Legislature and preparing for the next election cycle, it’s likely to be an advantage.
“If the victor spends the next 60 days throwing friendly fire at the leadership in the Legislature and the executive branch, it might be less of an advantage.”