DELBARTON, W.Va. — A youth soccer t-shirt, a West Virginia University baseball cap, gym shorts and running shoes.
This is what Bo Copley was wearing when he pulled up to his wife’s photography studio in downtown Delbarton for our interview.
Six months prior, Copley was a candidate for U.S. Senate, a Republican running in a field of six to see who would advance to the general election. The studio was his campaign headquarters.
Nowadays, the only field Copley has on his mind is the soccer field.
“I have three kids (Elliott, Charlotte and Merritt), and my youngest is finally old enough to play soccer,” he said once inside. “I come home from work and go straight to the field, or sometimes I go straight to the field. Lauren (Copley’s wife) brings the kids and meets me there, but we usually have practice two or three days a week, then games on Saturday.”
This is a much different pace for Copley, whose campaign efforts lasted for one year. What sparked his interest goes back to May 2016, when Copley took part in a forum with then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin.
The visit came on the heels of comments Clinton made about bringing new opportunities to economically distressed areas, in which she said her administration would put coal companies “out of business.”
Copley, who lost his job with Arch Coal in September 2015, did not take Clinton’s remarks or Manchin’s continued support of her lightly.
“The fact that he was supporting her, knowing how most of the people felt about her and those kinds of comments — the tone of her voice and the way that she held herself as she said it — it just felt like he was putting his party over what the state wants,” he said.
Copley made multiple television appearances after the Clinton forum, catching the attention of not only those in West Virginia, but around the country. He and his wife prayed about whether to make a Senate bid.
The answer came in the form of a letter.
“It was a gentleman from Arizona who had said, ‘If you lived in my state and ran for legislative office, I’d vote for you. And I think you should run for office in West Virginia,'” Copley recalled.
“If you have a belief in God and get a letter that says you should do the thing that you’ve prayed about doing, you better believe I’m going to do it.”
“There were days when we drove five hours to go to Hardy County, then turned around and drove five hours home. We’d get up the next day and go do something again,” he said. “I learned a lot about what not to do and what to do. Probably more what not to do.”
From party chairman to political candidate
While Copley’s campaign know-how was learned on the trail, Conrad Lucas advised and trained candidates during his more than five years at the helm of the West Virginia Republican Party.
“I spent so many years advising other candidates and telling them how they needed to do things on every level, particularly on messaging,” Lucas said.
Lucas’ roots in the Republican Party run deep; he served as an intern for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., when she served in the House of Representatives, later taking a staff position. He also was chairman of the West Virginia Young Republicans, the state party’s Field Director and counsel for the state party before becoming chairman in May 2012.
There’s also Lucas’ wife, LeFlore, whom Lucas met through the Republican Party.
Lucas said he promised his wife an adventure when he proposed. The first adventure came when the two were on their honeymoon; while the couple was in Monaco, Gov. Jim Justice announced he was switching parties at a rally in Huntington.
“I had to do a lot of media interviews from my hotel room on my honeymoon,” Lucas said laughing. “Those are the things that happen when you lead the state party. No day is like any other.”
“I said, ‘How can I make this up to you?’ She said, ‘I need a bottle of Dom Pérignon and a new leather wallet.’ I told her to go do it,” he recalled. “I had no idea how much any of those things cost until later, but it kept us on good terms in the first week of our marriage.”
Getting the executive branch — though not by winning an election — is just one of Lucas’ accomplishments while leading the party; the GOP took control of the state Legislature and flipped the 3rd Congressional District in 2014. President Donald Trump won West Virginia in the 2016 presidential election by 42 points.
“We’re one of the most conservative states, so it was a natural fit,” Lucas said. “The way to do that was a full-time, comprehensive communication and grassroots strategy and fundraising. We were so active. Politics isn’t something that can just be done in October of even number years.”
Lucas said he felt, with his experience in political strategy, he could win the 3rd District race this year; then-U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, who now serves on the West Virginia Supreme Court, was running against Copley and four others for the Republican candidacy in this year’s Senate contest.
“I’m about to enter a new phase of my life, hopefully raising a family here in West Virginia. So many of West Virginia’s problems stem from bad leadership, and I wanted to be someone who could advance positive things for our state,” he said.
Learning from past campaigns
Former West Virginia Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said it’s not always clear for someone regarding a run for office, but many people have ideas that lead to campaigns.
“You have to be ready for it,” she added.
Tennant ran for public office six times between 2004 and 2016, running for secretary of state (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016), governor (2011) and U.S. Senate (2014).
“People will tell that your first job is your favorite. Your first campaign is always your favorite. I love that race,” Tennant said of the 2004 contest when she lost in the Democratic primary.
“I love meeting people. I love campaigning. We just learned as we went along and we made lots of mistakes, but they didn’t feel like mistakes at the time.”
Tennant has been in the public spotlight for most of her adult life, serving as the first female Mountaineer while at West Virginia University and later as a television reporter. These experiences are what Tennant credits for her early political success.
“As a reporter, you go to a morning meeting with this idea and they’re like, ‘No, I don’t want this story. What do you have next?'” she said. “It’s the same entrepreneurial spirit that you need to have as an elected official.”
Tennant used her 2004 experience to win in the general election contest in 2008.
“I was embraced because people in West Virginia like folks who maybe tripped up and fell down but get back up,” she said. “It showed people I was genuine about wanting to be secretary of state.
“I just worked my butt off. I just worked all different areas. I can tell you that primary night just stunned me. ‘Wow. Finally, finally, I won,'” she said. “It is an awesome feeling.”
Tennant served as secretary of state for eight years. She pointed out some of her accomplishments while in office, including increasing voting opportunities for military personnel and creating a business waiver program for veterans. West Virginia also enacted automatic voter registration during her tenure.
Tennant also pointed out the office returned millions of dollars to the general revenue fund.
“We really led the country in a lot of election and business services,” she said. “I just felt it was important to address all the areas and services the secretary of state’s office offers.”
But Tennant’s electoral history continued, and not just in regards to keeping her position. She ran for governor in 2011 — losing in the Democratic primary to eventual winner Earl Ray Tomblin — and for U.S. Senate in 2014 — losing in the general election to then-Rep. Shelley Moore Capito.
Tennant said the issues she was pushing in the 2014 election cycle are issues that now have people’s attention.
“They weren’t talking about pre-existing conditions when I was in 2014 with my daughter, who has experienced it,” she said.
Her daughter, Delaney Wells, had heart surgery when she was born.
“No one would listen to me about 3D printing and all of the tech jobs that we could have in West Virginia, or clean coal technology that I was pushing in 2014,” she said. “We lost, but the same time I like that race, too.”
Lack of attention
Copley admitted his confidence took hits while on the campaign trail, starting with the perception of campaign fundraising.
“We had so many people say, ‘I wish you had run for something else because this is going to take way more money than you’re going to be able to have,'” he said. “There’s a reason why it becomes a spending race. People automatically look at those numbers and think the person who raises the most money is going to win. If people would vote for the person they want, that is where we’re going to make a big difference.”
Copley said people also focused too much on name recognition, connecting it to the ability to win in November.
“What were they going to attack me on?” he said. “I felt we stacked against Joe (Manchin) better than anybody else did, but we really didn’t have the funds to get out to people.”
As the race continued, most attention was focused on three candidates: state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, Jenkins and former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The attention on these three candidates left Copley without traction to build his campaign.
“I understand you have limited time so you want to go after the hard hitters, but a lot of people didn’t know that we were running,” he said. “(For) most of these news outlets, it’s a three-person race. Regardless what any person in the media’s chance is, it’s their job to report it fairly.”
Copley finished fifth in the Republican primary for Senate with 3.1 percent of the vote.
“I had a lot of my close friends with me the night of the election. With one of my friends, we have a joke going back and forth where we call each other a loser,” he said.
“When the night was over and I had to tell everyone that we lost, I was very tearful. It wasn’t because I lost, but because of the people that were in that room,” he added. “Immediately upon telling all of them — with tears still in my eyes — she walked up, gave me a hug and put the big ‘L’ on her forehead. She asked, ‘Is it too early to call you a loser?'”
‘Those are the rules of the game’
Lucas’ campaign was fine in terms of finances. His grassroots efforts, he said, were well run.
“In some respects, I might have misread the electoral turnout. I based it too much on math compared to natural instincts,” he said. “If I had gone with my instincts, the results might have been different, but maybe not.”
Lucas said it’s difficult for him to evaluate his own campaign.
“I have spent less time thinking about the mistakes than one might think. The results are still going to be the same. There’s no point thinking about the past as opposed to getting on with life and thinking about the future,” he said.
“Anybody that is confident that they are going to win always loses. Very few times did I feel confident that I would win. Every time I would see independent expenditures come in for other candidates and with the turnout in the U.S. Senate race, that’s where I saw factors that I didn’t think I could control.”
Lucas finished fourth in the 3rd District’s Republican primary, with Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell, advancing to the general election. Before Election Day in May, the Miller campaign criticized Lucas with mailers for attending Harvard University.
Lucas, a West Virginia native, received his bachelor’s degree and doctorate in education from Vanderbilt University, his master’s in education from Harvard and his juris doctor from Tulane University.
“Yes, I was attacked very heavily for going to Harvard. Is that a bad thing? Hell no, it’s not a bad thing, and I’m fine with that,” he said.
Lucas challenged Miller to a one-on-one debate, going as far as to call her a “career politician” prior to the May 8 election.
Now, Lucas is supporting Miller in her race against Logan County Sen. Richard Ojeda.
“Those are the rules of the game, and I’m not going to fault someone else for doing it exactly like how I would have advised someone to attack me on,” he said of Miller’s attacks.
Being a down-ballot race
“To make a long story short, I got Trumped.”
Tennant said the environment of the 2016 election is what most contributed to her loss in the race against Republican challenger Mac Warner.
“Folks were angry and upset, and have every right to be. At the same time, don’t take it out on the wrong person. Don’t take it out on your friends,” she said. “It’s always Obama and Hillary Clinton. People, when have Obama or Hillary Clinton been in the secretary of state’s office?”
Tennant said she thought her record in office would have been enough to earn a third term as secretary of state.
“People didn’t feel that way. They were angry, and they took it out on some wrong people,” she said.
Tennant was in a unique position on Election Day two years ago; as the secretary of state, her office is responsible for overseeing elections statewide.
“We’re hearing from all over the state and starting to get results in. We’re trying to get results in from the county and put on the website,” she said of that night. “It’s like all the precincts are in there and there are not enough votes to make out for that deficit there. I look at my deputy secretary and said, ‘It’s not looking good. I don’t have enough votes to be counted to be able to win.'”
Tennant said no one in the office was able to stop and reflect on the election results, but she did remember a change in the mood.
“They’re devastated that they lost. They’re devastated because their future is uncertain,” she said. “They are the best professionals that you can find in state government — and out of state government — because they continue to push for it and continue to do their job.”
“You wake up in the middle of the night and you’re like, ‘Did that really happen? Yeah, I really lost,'” she continued.
The next morning for Tennant was typical; she took her daughter to school before heading to the state Capitol. And like every morning, she began with greeting Capitol police.
“They looked like they felt so bad for me, but at the same time, they were like, ‘You’ve got to give her credit ’cause she’s walking in the office right now,'” she said. “That’s what you have to be able to do.”
After the results are official
Tennant now works at the Brennan Center for Justice on its Voting Rights and Elections project, which focuses on increasing the number of voters nationwide.
“I advocate for automatic voter registration and expanding voting rights,” she said. “In a sense, it’s what I did as secretary of state, but I get to do it across the country.”
Lucas hasn’t left politics behind, either; he is assisting state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey in his efforts in this year’s Senate contest.
“It’s statewide, which will not only benefit Morrisey but also all candidates in West Virginia,” he said. “You need a solid grassroots for Election Day, but what happens after that? There were canvasses in some legislative races which were decided by a couple of votes. I’m part of the team of folks making sure every vote is counted and that we’re in a good position.”
Lucas said he isn’t planning to seek his old seat in the state party, saying Melody Potter is leading the state GOP well.
“I’ve lived my life in two-year increments. I’m still wired to think that way, but I’ve been able to do stuff I haven’t been able to do in a long time,” he said. “I was just in Nashville for my college homecoming, and I would have not been able to do that if it had been a different situation for me.”
For Copley, his entrance into politics led to more involvement; he and his wife serve on the Mingo County Republican Executive Committee.
“We’ve been going to our executive committee meetings and trying to figure out how to help Republicans in our area. One of the biggest things for me is I’ve tried to support for those who won in the primary,” he said.
Copley took a shot at Morrisey during an April debate, saying Morrisey was running in hopes of a better opportunity.
“He’s different. He’s not really from here and he has a different way of going around things. He really is like a bulldog,” he told MetroNews. “I’ve gotten to talk to him more after the primary than I did before and had a lot more pleasant conversations after the primary than I did before the primary season. For me and my house, we’re going to be voting for Patrick.”
According to Copley, Morrisey was complimentary of Copley’s campaign photography, which was done by Lauren Copley, a person her husband credits for driving his campaign
“I never had a prepared speech. I gave everything from the heart. I always relied on God to give me the right words at the right time, so I just bragged on her.”
“She had more faith in me than I did at times,” he said, choking back tears. “She was always pushing me and always holding my hand. I could never have done any of it without her.”
Copley is also employed, working for Alpha Natural Resources at a warehouse deep mine.
“Two days after the primary, I went golfing. The next day, I was looking for a job,” he said.
Lucas and Tennant didn’t open up about any future plans, but both said they would like to continue to be involved in West Virginia politics.
“I want to serve. I want to make a difference for West Virginia, and I’ve shown that I can do that with ideas that others haven’t come up with,” Tennant said. “I know I can do it, but then you got to listen to the voters. I don’t know what’s in the future, but I know you have to be ready.”
For Copley, it depends on if the right opportunity comes along. Sitting in his wife’s photography studio, he spoke about the power of the working man and the need for that representation in Washington.
“I’ve lived 41 years in this state and 41 years in this county. I have heard so many people say, ‘I wish we had someone to choose from where it didn’t feel like we were choosing between the lesser of two evils,'” he said. “I just felt it was the right timing.”
“I live in a trailer and ran for U.S. Senate. I can hang my hat on that,” he added.