Comedian Steve Martin used to tell a joke where he pretended to be financial wizard giving people advice on how to become a millionaire. His tip: “First, get a million dollars.”
Veteran West Virginia Republican political strategist Greg Thomas is no Steve Martin, but his candid and serious advice to anyone considering running for Governor of the state is just that—get a million dollars.
“Running statewide to be the state’s top government executive is expensive. TV and radio ads are not free,” Thomas told me. Therefore, potential candidates must make an accurate assessment of their finances.
“I tell all prospective candidates (for Governor) that if you do not know where your first million dollars is coming from—either from your personal bank account or from an already established campaign account, then perhaps running for Governor in this election isn’t the right timing.”
Recent history backs up Thomas’s frank advice.
The winner of the last two elections for Governor of West Virginia went deep into his own checkbook to finance campaigns. The Vote Smart website shows that Jim Justice spent nearly $2.7 million of his own money in the 2020 race. He lent his campaign $3.8 million in his first run for Governor in 2016.
In each election, more than half of the campaign costs were paid for by Justice himself.
Justice’s opponents in those two elections also invested their personal wealth.
Vote Smart records show Democrat Ben Salango contributed over $600,000 of his own money in the 2020 race. That was about one-fourth of the cost of his campaign. Republican Bill Cole dipped into his bank account for over $900,000. That paid for nearly one-third of the campaign expenses.
There is the occasional exception to the necessity of personal wealth. Democrat Stephen Smith did not have his own money to devote to his campaign for the Democratic nomination for Governor in 2020, but he did have an army of volunteers who joined him at dozens of town hall meetings where they generated enthusiasm and raised $778,000, mostly in small donations.
Smith gave Salango a run for his money in the Democratic Primary, but still fell short (39 percent to 34 percent).
Then there is the rare example of a candidate who puts so much of his own money into his campaign that it almost becomes a detriment. Oil heir Jay Rockefeller spent $12 million of his own money to win a second term as Governor in 1980. That would be about $40 million in today’s dollars.
The exorbitant spending prompted criticism that Rockefeller was “buying” the election. Supporters of his opponent, Republican former Governor Arch Moore, sported bumper stickers that read, “Make him spend it all, Arch.” Rockefeller won 54-46.
Meanwhile, the positioning for the 2024 race for Governor is already occurring. Just last week, Huntington businessman Chris Miller filed pre-candidacy papers. Miller, a Republican, is the son of current 3rd District Congresswoman Carol Miller and president of the Dutch Miller Auto Group.
According to Thomas, who is a friend of Miller’s but not working for his campaign, Miller can jump start his fund raising out of his personal account. “Chris Miller has said that he has more than $1.5 million available for the campaign and will be focused on being a prolific fund raiser,” Thomas said.
Justice cannot run for a third consecutive term, so the field is wide open. The race is still a long way off, but for anyone thinking seriously about running—as Greg Thomas and Steve Martin say—first, get a million dollars.