Statehouse Beat: The election financing circus

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Leave it to West Virginia to turn a small, relatively innocuous pilot project for public financing of elections into a political circus.I'm talking about the state Election Commission's 2-2 deadlock vote, blocking the release of a $144,471 supplemental, or "rescue," payment to Republican Allen Loughry, so that his publicly financed war chest would match that of the top-spending opponent so far in the general election. (Justice Robin Davis' campaign financing disclosure shows her re-election campaign spent $494,417 from May 9 to June 30, presumably in contracts locking up commercial air time now for the fall election.)Naturally, this being West Virginia, the Democrats in this matter are acting like Republicans, and vice versa.Although Republicans nationally eschew public campaign financing, the only candidate participating in the Supreme Court campaign pilot project is Loughry, a Republican (though recently converted from registered independent) and the Election Commission member who made the motion to release the funds, political science professor and commentator Robert Rupp, is a registered Republican.Conversely, former state Democratic Party chairman Mike Callaghan has filed a petition in U.S. District Court on behalf of Democrat challenger Tish Chafin to have the West Virginia law thrown out as unconstitutional.Meanwhile, attorney general Darrell McGraw, a Democrat, has issued an opinion declaring the West Virginia law to be invalid, given a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning a similar public financing law in Arizona.It is notable that the opinion written by managing deputy attorney general Barbara Allen states that "although we disagree with the decision," U.S. Supreme Court rulings are to be followed as the supreme law of the land. (Not being a lawyer, but I don't follow how the matching funds violate the free speech rights of the privately financed candidates. It's not as if the law bans privately funded candidates from buying all the commercial air time they can afford.)Ironically, the legislation creating the public financing pilot project was prompted by Democrats concerned by the growing influx of campaign cash in judicial races, typified by the $3 million of expenditures Don Blankenship made in 2004 in hopes of getting Brent Benjamin elected to the high court.There's real concern among Democrats that, while it is highly unlikely, both Republican candidates can win election to the Supreme Court this fall; it is highly possible that one of the two can.
(Let's not forget how close Circuit Judge John Yoder came to knocking off respected Justice Tom McHugh in the 2010 special Supreme Court election. Plus, there's a concern that a segment of West Virginia voters will be reluctant to cast both votes for Supreme Court for two women.)

• • •Also notable at the Election Commission meeting was the apparent change of heart by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who in June voted with the majority to postpone a decision on whether the commission can release supplemental funds to Loughry's campaign in light of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.Last week, Tennant seconded Rupp's motion to authorize releasing the $144,471 payment.Normally, there is live streaming and videotaping of the Election Commission meetings. Unfortunately, Tennant -- who participated in the meeting via teleconference -- had taken the video equipment with her to the National Association of Secretaries of State conference in San Juan, Puerto Rico, so that the NASS could video-stream its meetings.In this case, a replay would be useful, since it appeared Rupp's motion was going to die for lack of a second. Rupp had even begun to declare the motion dead when Tennant asked him to hold on, and after conferring with someone on her end for about a minute, seconded the motion.

After taking beatings over her handling of the special elections for U.S. Senate and governor, and for allowing Keith Judd to remain on the presidential primary ballot, Tennant clearly was walking a tightrope on the campaign public financing issue.

• • •Finally, speaking of conferences, as the Southern Legislative Conference gets underway this weekend, it's worth remembering that the last time the SLC met in Charleston, in 1997, the big story wasn't a keynote speech, or the fireworks display at the Capitol, but comments made by members of the South Carolina delegation in the Columbia, S.C., State newspaper.In the column, legislators complained about the lack of amenities and lack of things to do in downtown Charleston. One suggested that out of deference for West Virginia, the 1998 conference, slated for Charleston, S.C., should be moved to his hometown of Irmo (population 11,000), which he snidely suggested "has more to offer than the West Virginia capital city."Fortunately, much has changed in Charleston since then.When the SLC last met in Charleston in 1997, the Clay Center was a vacant lot; Appalachian Power Park was a mostly empty city block, save for a small office building and a vacant warehouse building (now the centerpiece of the ballpark); Embassy Suites was a construction site; the state museum at the Culture Center was 20-plus years outdated, with static displays behind glass; and the Capitol Market, barely open a month, was a fledgling operation, not a destination. To name a few changes in the past 15 years...Perhaps the South Carolina delegation will have a better time in Charleston this year. Reach Phil Kabler at or 304-348-1220.

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