CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The key to several legislative races on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election may come down to who Republican voters consider to be the ‘most conservative’ candidate.
Since control of the West Virginia House and Senate flipped to Republican a half dozen years ago the Republican primaries have become more contested. It’s been a significant transformation when one considers how difficult it was for decades for the GOP to fill its ballot with one candidate for each race in hopes knocking off a Democrat in the general election.
But now filling the GOP primary ballot, in most cases, is not a problem. The overriding theme in several races reviewed by MetroNews is whether a candidate is conservative enough when it comes to GOP bedrock issues like abortion and the 2nd Amendment.
The race for the Republican nomination for House District 59 could be considered a leading example of the trend.
Del. Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, is seeking a stiff challenge from three-term Nitro City Councilman Andy Shamblin.
Shamblin, a Nitro High School teacher and local minister, says he’s pro-life and pro-guns. Graves points to her endorsements from West Virginians for Life and the National Rifle Association (NRA).
“I do think that I am a proven conservative,” Graves told MetroNews. “Anybody can say anything that they want when they are running for office–they don’t have any voting record to stand on. You can claim you are more Trump than Donald Trump if you wanted to do that. People can be fooled by that kind of rhetoric.”
PAC money has gotten involved in this race. Mountain State Values, the labor backed PAC that has spent more money in this election than any other independent group, has spent money on behalf of Shamblin. Radio ads produced by the group say he’s conservative. Graves has tried to counter those ads with some of her own pointing toward her endorsements.
”My opponent is relying on the fact that he’s a minister so he’s a conservative but there are all kinds of people out there,” Graves said.
She said questionnaires filled out by Shamblin for West Virginians for Life showed support for abortion in some areas and his questionnaire to the NRA shows he supports gun control in some areas.
“If your own answers to tough questions prove that you’re not (conservative) I have no problem pointing that out,” Graves said about her radio ads that try and counter the Mountain State Values ads.
Shamblin said he is pro-life and an NRA member. He said Graves is just trying to get he attention off the criticism of her lack of accomplishment in two-plus terms in the House.
“I feel like our delegates need to be people who are rooted in their communities and heavily involved in their communities and I’ve never felt like the current officeholder met that criteria,” Shamblin said.
This race will also be interesting to watch because of the change in the district created by redistricting. Graves has represented a single member district but her new district takes away a portion of Putnam County and adds in almost all of Nitro and the communities west of St. Albans which could give Shamblin an advantage because he’s been a member of Nitro Council.
Now that there are 100 single member districts in the House, these races could be decided on very localized issues. Graves said Nitro Mayor Dave Casebolt backs Shamblin because she informed Cross Lanes residents of Nitro’s hopes to annex the community. She said that may return to the table if she’s defeated Tuesday.
Shamblin said voters will have a clear choice due to a clear contrast between the candidates.
“It’s for the voters to determine and that’s what elections are about but from my perspective there is a lack of accomplishments on how we can work to better our district. She’s spent most of her time, in my opinion, advancing her political career within the party and within the House and has sort of forgotten, in my opinion, the needs of her district.”
Democrat Rusty Williams of St. Albans is running unopposed Tuesday and will advance to the November General Election.
It takes a while to drive from Crum in Wayne County to Bluefield in Mercer County but that’s what makes up District 6 in the West Virginia Senate.
That’s where Wayne County used car dealer Sen. Mark Maynard emerged from nowhere 8 years ago to defeat then Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin. Now Maynard is locked in a three-way race for the GOP nomination to keep that seat for what he hopes is a third term.
Challengers Wes Blankenship and Sabrina Grace both point to their conservative stands on issues. But Maynard said he may be the most conservative member of the Senate.
“I’m really conservative. There are only a few hard core conservatives but I stand with the national and state platform. I pass the litmus test,” he told MetroNews last week.
Maynard said he’s been a successful legislator by learning how to get things done.
“It’s a pleasure to be there and know who to talk to and after being there for a couple terms every year I learn a little more about the process and understand it,” he said.
Grace, a speech pathologist in Boone County who served 6 years on the Mingo County Board of Education before stepping down to run for the Senate, said Maynard is no doubt conservative but he’s largely absent in the sprawling district.
“I think we need a senator who not only is going to be our conservative vote in Charleston, but we need a senator who is going to be involved in our district and will go throughout the counties,” Grace told MetroNews.
Grace also said she believes the representative of the 6th District needs to flex more muscle in Charleston especially with the GOP super majority in the Senate.
“You have to stand up and do that and you have to be the senator you’re elected to be and represent your district and not wait for a senator from a different area to tell you what you are allowed to do,” she said.
Maynard said he still has the fire in his belly to serve after two terms and maintains he’s been successful in Charleston.
“I’m sure once people are in there for decades then they get a little stale but I’m still on fire and love making contact and I introduce 25 bills a year. I come up with these ideas to move the state forward,” he said.
Redistricting made a few changes to the 6th. It took a few Wayne County precincts away, Maynard’s home county, and added precincts from other counties. The new lines include southern Wayne and all of Mingo, McDowell and Mercer counties.
Most of the votes in this race will be in Mercer County where Grace is less known. There were more Republicans to vote in Mercer County in the 2018 race than the other three counties combined.
The state’s other 6th District senator Chandler Swope is from Mercer County and Maynard said he’s enjoyed his support.
Graves said campaigning in the sprawling district has been an “uphill battle” but she feels good about deciding to run.
“I kept hearing, ‘We don’t see our senator. We don’t see our senator.’ I can only complain so much without doing something about it,” she said.
Blankenship did not return a call from MetroNews seeking comment for this story. Welch resident Tiffany Clemins is the only Democrat in the race and will advance to the fall election.
Tuesday will be the rubber match between Del. Riley Keaton, R-Roane, and former delegate Rick Atkinson. The two faced each other six years ago when Keaton was just 18 and Atkinson won by less than 30 votes. He served two terms and then they met again in 2020 when Keaton came out on top.
Keaton, now 24, said he’s the more conservative candidate. A quick look at his website shows a list of well-known groups including West Virginians for Life. He said since his days as a high school candidate his support has grown in each election.
“It’s that Riley started at 37% in 2016 went up to 52% in 2020 and that number is going to keep going up. That is the hope,” he said.
Keaton runs summer camps for the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese. Atkinson said he believes voters want a representative who is more available.
“I live here, pay taxes here, I’m available here. I shop here and I shop our local stores on a weekly basis. I think more so than my opponent,” Atkinson, a retired wood products salesman, said.
Atkinson said he’s proud of his legislative record. He’s been recognized for his work with mental health issues and it’s something he wants to continue. He believes it’s one of the keys to having a more prepared workforce.
“First of all we need a drug-free environment for this to happen. I have worked in the mental behavioral health areas. It starts in our school system,” Atkinson said.
Atkinson and Keaton both believe Roane County needs more manufacturing jobs. Atkinson said road improvements from the governor’s Roads to Prosperity program are going to make it easier to get to both I-77 and I-79.
Keaton said the area needs an economic anchor.
“There’s still this missing sparkplug in the local economy,” he said. “We need to find something that brings dollars and jobs into the community and serves as the bedrock to revitalizing commerce and Main street much like what Mason County is getting with Nucor,” Keaton said.
House District 15 is made up of mostly Roane County. Redistricting took away precincts in southern Jackson County and added precincts in Wirt County including the county seat of Elizabeth.
Atkinson said a vote for him is a vote for experience and a vote for a delegate who locals will often see.
“I like making a difference and I think that if you look at my record you’ll see that I have made a difference and I have more things that I want to do as far as education and mental and behavioral health are concerned,” he said.
Keaton said a vote for him will represent continuing to move forward. He said Atkinson has 50 more years of name recognition but he’s confident district Republicans will vote to send him back to Charleston.
“I think the people understand that this is the time that we need people who will really buckle down, hold the line and represent us well and this sort of backslapping, old-school ‘I’m running for the House to put in my obituary thing’ doesn’t work anymore,” Keaton said.
MetroNews Decision 2022 coverage will include all of the results from across the state at wvmetronews.com and on-air coverage streaming at the website and on radio stations around West Virginia beginning at 7:06 Tuesday night.