Republican Robert Karnes took the first step this week in his attempt to return to the state Senate. Karnes, who was defeated in the 2018 Republican Primary in the 11th Senatorial District, won nomination Tuesday by knocking off incumbent John Pitsenbarger 54 percent to 46 percent.
Karnes will face Democratic former House of Delegates member Denise Campbell in November.
There was a notable subtext to Karnes victory Tuesday: The national anti-greyhound racing organization GREY2K USA got involved in the race. GREY2K paid for two mailings of 10,000 postcards each to voters in the district criticizing Pitsenbarger for his opposition to a bill last session that would have ending greyhound racing at the state’s two tracks.
“This year, John Pitsenbarger voted to give a $17 million state subsidy to greyhound breeders, instead of funding vital services like fixing roads, drug addiction treatment, or health care for seniors,” read one of the mailings.
Pistsenbarger responded in a Facebook post that his vote against defunding greyhound racing was “to keep jobs in West Virginia to help hard working men and women thrive and hold onto their livelihoods so they could continue to take care of their families.”
GREY2K executive director Carey Theil told me the organization used the Pitsenbarger-Karnes race to see if greyhound racing could be an issue for voters. It is unclear how much the mailings impacted the race, but Theil believes the message resonated enough to be used again in November.
“The next step for us is to make this an electoral issue,” Theil said. “If we can pick a couple of races and unseat lawmakers who voted the wrong way, we will.”
Theil said the organization has not decided yet which races to focus on in the General Election, but he said party affiliation does not matter. “I would be just as excited to elect a Democrat as Republican” he said, if they opposed greyhound racing. “There’s political peril in being on the wrong side of the issue,” he said.
Greyhound opponents have lost political ground over the last couple of years. The Legislature passed a bill in 2017 that would have eliminated the requirement that a portion of the proceeds from the state’s casinos—typically $15 million to $17 million annually—be used to subsidize greyhound racing.
Notably, Robert Karnes, who was in the Senate at the time, sponsored the bill. However, Governor Jim Justice traveled to Wheeling, home of one of the state’s two greyhound tracks (the other is in Cross Lanes outside Charleston), to veto the bill.
Greyhound racing opponent Senator Mitch Carmichael pushed a bill during the session earlier this year that would have eliminated greyhound racing, but it did not make it out of the chamber, failing on an 11-23 vote. Pitsenbarger was among those voting against the bill.
According to GREY2K, West Virginia is one of only four states that still has greyhound racing. Texas and Iowa each have one track. Arkansas’s lone dog track is scheduled to close by December 2022.
“West Virginia is our priority,” Theil told me. “It’s the last stand for greyhound racing.” And now an element of that campaign will be GREY2K’s direct involvement in state legislative races to support greyhound racing opponents.