With Republicans holding a narrow 18-16 margin in the state Senate, control of the body was again hanging in the balance Tuesday, with more than half of the Senate races statewide shaping up as toss-ups.
However, with some races pending, Republicans appeared headed to slightly widening their margin in the Senate.
In a key win in the 16th District, Patricia Rucker, a former teacher, used an active grassroots campaign to defeat Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, one of the House’s most outspoken liberal voices, to pick up the seat vacated by Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.
At press time, Republicans had picked up three seats, and Democrats one seat, with four races too close to call.
That included one of the hotly contested local races, the 4th District, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was hit with a barrage of attack ads from both the left and right in his battle with Putnam County trial lawyer Brian Prim.
With nearly 90 percent of precincts reporting, Carmichael led Prim by 406 votes, but with 20 precincts in Prim’s home county yet to report.
In the 8th District, first-term Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, lost to Democrat Glenn Jeffries.
Walters was also targeted by attack ads, and was being significantly outspent by the Putnam County contractor and businessman, who was declared the winner by the Associated Press shortly after 10 p.m.
In the 17th District, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, faced a potentially tough re-election bid against first-term Delegate Chris Stansbury, R-Kanawha, who attempted to portray Palumbo as a liberal, while Palumbo likened himself to an independent voice who can reach across the aisle to work with Republicans.
Palumbo jumped out to a significant early lead, and coasted to a 22,602 to 18,173 margin of victory.
“Delegate Stansbury is a hard campaigner and a hard worker, so I certainly never figured it to be an easy race by any means,” Palumbo said.
Also, The Associated Press declared long-time incumbent Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, the winner over Republican Barry Bledsoe in the 13th District.
Additionally, three other incumbents — Sens. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, and Craig Blair, R-Berkeley — cruised to easy re-election wins.
Contests also featured four districts with open seats, as Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, opted to instead run for governor, and Sens. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, and Snyder retired from the Senate.
Republicans were on pace to pick up at least three of those seats.
In the 2nd, Glen Dale radiologist Mike Maroney headed to an easy victory over Democrat Lisa Zuroff and Libertarian H. John Rogers to pick up Kessler’s seat.
Likewise, in the 6th, retired contractor Chandler Swope, Bill Coie’s hand-picked successor to the seat he vacated for an ill-fated run for governor, easily defeated Democrat Rocky Seay.
Two years ago, election night ended with the Senate in a 17-17 tie, as Republicans picked up seven seats, and added an eighth one day later when then-Sen. Daniel Hall switched parties to give Republicans control of the Senate.
On Tuesday, Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, appointed to fill Hall’s vacancy, edged out longtime Wyoming County clerk Mike Goode to hold the 9th District seat.
With control of the Senate on the line, political action committees poured significant funds into the 2016 races, most notably 2.7 million by West Virginia Family Values PAC, financed by labor unions and trial lawyers unhappy with passage of tort reform, right-to-work and repeal of the state’s prevailing wage rate by the Republican-led Senate.
However, the ads targeting Republican senators focused not on those votes, but contended the senators are controlled by out-of-state interests and lack West Virginia values, particularly with ads focusing on Carmichael’s testimony as a character witness at the sentencing for a child molester. At one point, Walters filed suit to block ads that tried to connect him with Carmichael.
The Republican State Leadership Committee countered with about $250,000 in ad buys, while pro-business groups such as Grow WV and the West Virginia Right to Work Committee spent to-date undisclosed amounts to support Republican candidates.
In the final weekend of the campaign, the West Virginia Family Policy Council jolted the election with robocalls purportedly from a 12-year-old girl claiming she had seen a naked man in her swim class dressing room.
The ad targeted Democratic and at least three Republican senators who had opposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last session, a vote the council contends allowed nondiscrimination ordinances to stand in eight West Virginia cities, purportedly allowing scenarios such as the one depicted in the robocall.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.