CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The vote for a new leader of West Virginia’s House of Delegates comes with a whole new twist, the influence of a super PAC going to bat for Delegate Roger Hanshaw.
The newly-formed 1863 PAC has been running advertisements on behalf of Hanshaw, R-Clay. The support has been on social media and broadcast, including on West Virginia Radio stations.
“In all my years, I cannot recall any time we had radio ads or newspaper ads in favor of one candidate over another,” said Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, who is retiring after 33 years in the House.
“But it shows that there’s a lot of competition, and I think that’s healthy.”
Delegates will be choosing a new Speaker after the resignation of Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to run for state Supreme Court.
Besides Hanshaw, the other front-runner is House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.
Others in the mix include Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason and Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer. Cowles and Gearheart are interested in holding the position just through the General Election.
The full House will vote on a new Speaker at 9 a.m. Wednesday, but the real politics will go on behind the scenes.
The Republican majority will vote on its leader starting at 7 p.m. today during a caucus behind closed doors. Democrats in the House will also be caucusing, although it’s likely they’ll stick with the current minority leader, Tim Miley.
The campaigning for Hanshaw by 1863 PAC has been statewide and unusually public.
Miley had not seen or heard the advertisements for Hanshaw but agreed such an approach is unusual.
“Outside influences have very little, if any, impact on a Speaker’s Race,” said Miley, D-Harrison, who was House speaker from 2013 to 2014. “Most of the time, the decision-making process by the members is driven by personal motivations.”
Miley added, “Outside influences getting involved may backfire.”
1863 PAC, with its reference to the year of the state’s founding, is new to West Virginia’s political scene.
The political action committee incorporated with the Secretary of State’s office in early May. The incorporating officer is Trevor Stanley, a partner in the politically-active Baker Hostetler firm in Washington, D.C. One of his specialties is state campaign finance.
1863 PAC’s first post on its Facebook page was a little more than a week ago, August 19.
“The PAC intends to support candidates in the delegates race through November and beyond and continue to promote the kinds of policies that are contributing to the state’s growing economy and revitalization of core sectors of its economy,” an 1863 PAC spokesman said in a telephone interview.
The spokesman, who didn’t want to be named out of deference to Stanley and others, said the political action committee is aiming to raise Hanshaw’s profile.
“We’re an organization that supports Roger’s leadership and while we know his constituents and colleagues hold him in high esteem, we wanted to make sure that as he campaigned for Speaker voters statewide could be confident in his leadership moving forward.”
A super PAC is a type of independent political action committee that may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates.
1863 PAC says it intends to remain active in West Virginia, bringing a federal-style strategy to local districts.
Bob Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, the coal company bearing his name, hosted a fundraiser for 1863 PAC as well as for West Virginia’s Future PAC, which has issued recent statements in support of Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
Nelson was Finance chairman during West Virginia’s recent budget shortfalls. Gov. Jim Justice, with the support of Murray, had proposed a sliding scale for severance tax that would have affected coal and natural gas, competitors in the energy market.
The proposed severance tax changes did not pass, up against a difficult budget reality for the state.
Another connection to 1863 PAC is Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, who has publicly-supported Hanshaw. Moore acknowledges friendships with those at 1863 PAC and says he is not directly involved with its political efforts.
“I absolutely know the folks at 1863 PAC,” Moore said. “I support their efforts to get Roger’s name out there. I have no official affiliation nor am I a part of the PAC at all. I do know them and I support what they’re doing.”
Moore said a PAC weighing in on a Statehouse speaker’s race through advertisements on broadcast and social media is a natural evolution.
“It seems to be the way electoral politics goes these days,” he said. “Name any candidate who is running statewide or congressional or otherwise who has not had some sort of PAC involved.”
Moore doubted the votes of the Republican caucus would be swayed by such efforts. But he suggested the campaign could raise familiarity among West Virginia residents.
“I don’t think the PAC will influence anyone’s votes,” Moore said. “But I think it does help to raise the profile of a person who is running.”
A veteran Democratic campaigner, Mike Plante, said the strategy by 1863 PAC is unusual. But Plante is intrigued.
“I’ve never seen it,” Plante said. “I don’t recall anybody doing it before. It’s an interesting strategy.”
Plante noted the target audience for the statewide campaign is 64 Republican delegates (actually, 63 with Armstead’s resignation) plus close political observers.
“The audience is not really all the people in the little white houses out there,” Plante said. “It’s the opinion makers, the political elite. It’s showing there’s a gravitas for this guy and the ability for him to do something different like this.”
Several of the delegates who were traveling to Charleston for the Tuesday evening caucus said they were familiar with the political action committee through its recent efforts.
Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, at first through the advertisements were meant to support Hanshaw in his Clay County district. He was surprised to be targeted in the Eastern Panhandle. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Folk said.
Folk, who is leaving the House to run for state Senate, said he will likely cast his speaker vote based on firsthand knowledge of the other delegates. He had not heard of a PAC weighing in on such votes before.
“I would consider it a little unusual,” Folk said.
Delegate Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, had a friend send him the advertisement through social media. Phillips is also leaving the House, having run and lost in a bid for Congress.
Phillips has been a part of each of the House caucuses, having served as a Democrat, then as an independent and now as a Republican.
“With this day and time, people using every avenue in the world for getting your message out,” Phillips said. “Social media has just turned a different page for politics period.”