It’s very likely the Republican nominee for West Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District wins Tuesday’s primary election with less than 10,000 votes.
With seven candidates in the race and low turnout expected, anything is possible in the first legitimately contested GOP primary in the district in more than 30 years.
“I think voters would be very surprised to realize how few votes it takes in certain primaries to make it through,” GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas said Friday.
There are a little more than 132,000 registered Republicans in the 17-county Second District, which stretches from the Eastern Panhandle through the middle of the state to Putnam and Kanawha counties. However, the number of Republicans voting in the district in a non-presidential election is typically low: more than 40 percent voted in the 2008 election — the year President Barack Obama won for the first time — while only 23 percent voted in the 2010 election, according to the West Virginia Secretary of State.
The candidates are vying for the seat Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is vacating to run for U.S. Senate. Capito first won the seat in 2000 and faced little opposition in each of her seven GOP primaries.
The last competitive GOP primary in the district came in 1982, when its boundaries were significantly different. J.D. Hinkle Jr. of Buckhannon won the five-way Republican primary with 9,910 out of 28,352 votes cast, according to the Secretary of State’s office.
That race was also during a non-presidential election year for an open seat vacated by a Republican leaving to run for U.S. Senate. The one-term 2nd Congressional District Rep. Cleve Benedict, R-W.Va., failed to defeat Democrat incumbent Sen. Robert Byrd.
Lucas guessed 29,000 people would vote in this year’s primary. He said the winner needed to receive 25 to 30 percent of those votes, and that there’s a real chance the winner comes away with 8,400 votes.
The campaigns for many of the seven candidates agreed with those estimates.
“No one will get more than 10,000 votes, from what I can tell,” said Brent Robertson, campaign manager for Charlotte Lane.
Right now Lane, a Charleston attorney, is one of four candidates to have spent more than $100,000 on the race. Former Maryland GOP chairman and lawmaker Alex Mooney and Berkeley Springs pharmacist Ken Reed have each doled out more than half a million dollars on their campaigns.
By tomorrow’s primary, Robertson projected the total spending for those three campaigns would come out to as much as $1.6 million. That puts the value of a vote at $55, if each of the expected 29,000 registered Republicans casts a ballot, without considering money spent by the other four candidates.
As of late April Ron Walters Jr., a local financial consultant, spent more than $125,000 on the race. He said his campaign, which has cut paid stuff to “maximize” money for campaign ads, expects the nominee could win with as little as 7,000 votes.
“In this primary we have seen the vast majority of funding for several candidates come in the form of self-financing or out-of-state contributions,” Walters said in an email. “As such we have continued to reach out to potential in-state donors.”
“However, with such a crowded field and as evidenced by other’s campaigns, the majority of Republicans, I believe are still undecided.”
Lane, Mooney and Reed have each spent hundreds of thousands on campaign materials attacking each other. In Lane’s most recent radio ad, the campaign blasts Mooney for his recent move to the state and accuses him of not really understanding West Virginia voters.
Mooney campaign material accuses Lane and Reed of supporting too much gun control and not being conservative enough.
“With so many candidates, it is difficult to predict the outcome, but over the past year, Alex Mooney has traveled all across the district sharing his message of limited government and conservative values with the people of West Virginia,” said Nick Clemons, Mooney’s campaign manager.
Clemons said they hoped to win more votes than the other candidates, but declined to answer questions about how many the winner would need.
Reed didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mooney and Reed both registered in the Eastern Panhandle, meaning they’ll likely receive many or most of the votes from that region, said a Republican consultant who’s worked on the race. That would mean Lane would need a good showing among the 38,000 registered Republicans in Kanawha County, the largest GOP contingent in the district and the place Lane calls home.
Any of the four other candidates doing well in the Kanawha Valley or Eastern Panhandle will directly affect the Lane, Mooney and Reed campaigns.
“The bottom line is, if the Kanawha Valley turns out strong, voters there will pick the nominee, and if not they’ll be letting the Eastern Panhandle pick the nominee,” the consultant said.
Steve Harrison, Robert Fluharty and Jim Moss all think they have a legitimate shot at emerging with a win from the cluttered GOP primary.
Harrison, a former state delegate and senator, said he’s been outspent in races before. He thinks 6,500 to 7,000 votes could be enough to win.
“The four counties of Kanawha, Putnam, Jackson and Roane accounted for more than 50 percent of the votes in the 2010 GOP primary,” Harrison said, citing ties he shares with those counties.
“I believe I can win all four of those counties.”
The third candidate hailing from the Eastern Panhandle, the Charles Town military veteran Fluharty guessed the winning candidate could walk away with as little as 20 percent of the vote.
Fluharty, who isn’t accepting campaign donations, anticipated the Kanawha Valley and Eastern Panhandle votes would be split to the point where votes from outside would make the difference.
“I believe the deciding votes will come from the heart of West Virginia, places like Elkins, Ripley, Romney, Moorefield, Franklin and Spencer to name a few,” he said in an email.
“With the ballot showing the county of the candidate, people will vote local and split the metro areas.”
Putnam County’s Jim Moss also guessed he could win the primary with 8,000 to 9,000 votes. The Dunbar native said he thought a poor voter turnout in the Kanawha Valley would actually increase his odds of winning if he’s able to pull in some Putnam votes.
That low expected turnout overall is disappointing though, Moss said.
“I am amazed at the number of people I have talked to this week who do not even realize that the primary is this Tuesday,” Moss said Friday.
“I do not know how people decide who they are going to vote for.”
Resources help in that regard, Lucas said. However, old-fashioned campaigning in the community and relationships with neighbors could make the difference in a tight race.
“Anything is possible, truly,” Lucas said.
Polls open at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and close at 7:30 p.m. Forecasts say there’s a chance of rain later in the day, which could make for an even lower voter turnout.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.