CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Republican Party consultants are scouring a database of voters’ names and voting habits, with plans to show that Democrats in the House of Delegates used state funds to mail out politically motivated letters to select constituents.
House Democrats say the GOP is drumming up false allegations as part of a plan to defeat Democrats in the election and gain control of the House for the first time in 85 years. Republicans trail Democrats by six seats.
Republican State Chairman Conrad Lucas said the party’s preliminary study, which compares House members’ mailing lists to voter information contained in a comprehensive database, shows that some Democratic delegates sent 95 percent of their letters specifically to Democrats classified as “frequent voters” — those who have cast ballots three or four times in the past four years. The letters tout lawmakers’ work, including bills they introduced.
“It’s obvious that some [legislators] were targeting specifically for Democratic primaries, and others who realize they’re in trouble for the fall are targeting frequent voters,” Lucas said. “There’s no question it was politically motivated.”
Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, said it’s the Republicans who are playing politics.
“It’s absolutely political gamesmanship,” Perdue said. “In my view, it is much ado about nothing, and I think the public will see it the same way.”
The GOP has dubbed their investigation “Mailgate,” and they’ve singled out Delegates David Walker, D-Clay; Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha; and Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, as the biggest offenders.
Guthrie recently sent 4,819 pieces of mail to constituents in the House 35th District. The two-page mailer explains bills passed during the most recent legislative session, which ended in March.
Guthrie said she wasn’t targeting specific voters based on their political party or likelihood of going to the polls. She said she used a 3-year-old list of voters’ names and addresses that she keeps on a computer disk. About 100 of her letters were returned because people no longer lived at the addresses, she said.
Her mailings cost the state $1,156 in postage.
“It’s a list I’ve had a couple of years, and it probably needs to be updated,” Guthrie said. “It doesn’t target one political persuasion or another. It’s a cross-section of people’s addresses.”
Marcum, who sent 7,346 letters to constituents in the weeks leading up to the May 13 primary election, said he has spent years compiling a list of voter names and addresses, which he keeps on his personal laptop. Marcum said he doesn’t check on people’s political party or how many times they voted before adding their names to his list.
“This is my own personal list,” Marcum said. “I’ve sent Christmas cards from it. It’s used for a lot of purposes.”
The state Republican Party alleges that Walker, who represents Clay County’s House 33rd District, flooded frequent voters with 8,344 letters because he faces stiff opposition from Republican challenger Roger Hanshaw, a lawyer who already has raised $20,000 — more than double the amount of Walker’s campaign contributions to date.
Walker did not return a phone message seeking comment.
In addition to Guthrie, Marcum and Walker, the state GOP has identified 10 additional Democrats who sent a thousand or more mailers targeting “likely voters at taxpayer expense,” according to a memo Republicans released last week that explains their preliminary findings.
GOP officials said few delegates have mailed 100 or more letters to constituents in recent years, but 64,037 pieces of mail went out this year.
Lucas said it’s clear that House Democrats are sending the letters to select constituents — not to every household in their districts.
Republican operatives have obtained the names and addresses of thousands of people who received letters from House Democrats since January. The GOP requested the mailing labels from the House clerk’s office, after filing multiple requests under the state Freedom of Information Act.
GOP consultants are taking those names and entering them into a database — purchased from the Secretary of State’s Office — that reveals citizens’ party registration and what elections they’ve voted in since 2004. The consultants rate each voter on a scale of one to four — with one being an infrequent voter and four being a “super” voter.
Once the GOP’s painstaking analysis is complete, Republican operatives plan to file ethics complaints against some Democratic House members.
“It’s a very blatant use of taxpayer funds for political purposes,” Lucas said. “They didn’t even make an attempt to disguise they were only mailing to frequent voters.”
Perdue, one of the GOP’s targets, sent 4,050 letters to constituents in Wayne County. The House Health Committee chairman said he requested a list of voters who cast ballots in the past three elections. The list, which was prepared by the Democratic Party, included Democrats, Republicans and independents, he said.
“I know it included Republicans because some of them called me up and responded very negatively to the letter they got,” Perdue said.
GOP officials also take issue with the content of the House Democrats’ letters to constituents, saying the mailers read more like campaign materials, not legislative updates. Some Democrats, such as Walker, include their picture atop the letters.
In Marcum’s letter, he spotlights three House bills and writes, “My fight to better Southern West Virginia will continue. I also have introduced legislation that will help save coal jobs, protect our 2nd Amendment rights, protect seniors and help teachers and education.”
Marcum defeated a Democratic challenger in last week’s primary. He faces a Republican in the November general election. He’s expected to win handily because Democrats far outnumber Republicans in Mingo County.
“I don’t see these [legislative mailers] as a big issue,” Marcum said. “My constituents are so happy to know what’s going on in Charleston. They like to be kept up to date.”
Guthrie said House Speaker Tim Miley encouraged delegates to use their “franking privilege to communicate with constituents.” Members of the U.S. Congress frequently use such a privilege to send bulk mail to constituents.
Guthrie’s letter highlights a bill that regulates chemical storage tanks. The Legislature passed the bill in response to the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical leak.
With three House seats up for grabs in the 36th District, Guthrie faces a competitive race in November — including Republican Brad White, who already has raised more campaign cash than anyone else.
“Over 300,000 people were traumatized by a chemical spill they didn’t create and a water system that failed,” Guthrie said. “People wanted to know what we did on that water bill. I’m not going to let Conrad Lucas scare me away from my constituents.”
Perdue said House Democrats have done nothing wrong.
“[Lucas] is having a cow about all this,” Perdue said. “My question would be: Where’s the beef?”
Reach Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4869.