Republican Governors Association spokesman Jon Thompson confirmed Tuesday that the RGA is conducting opposition research on Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice.
However, he said the research — which includes plans to send a film crew to West Virginia for three days next week — is not necessarily aimed at taking the unprecedented step of airing attack ads during the Democratic primary campaign.
“Before the primary, we haven’t announced any plans to do any ads,” Thompson said.
As first reported by Politico and the National Journal, the RGA has hired Republican opposition researcher Terry Cooper to conduct research against Justice.
Cooper has sent unsolicited letters to state attorneys who represent coal miners and their families in black lung cases.
In the letter, Cooper states, “I am part of a team assembled by the Republican Governors Association to prevent Mr. Justice from being elected by exposing to the public how unfairly he has treated his companies’ miners…”
The letter goes on to state, “We are looking for individuals with first-hand knowledge of Justice’s companies’ deceptive and unsafe practices who are willing to go on the record and tell what they know for films that would be shown on television.”
While it is not unusual for the RGA to run attack ads against the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in the general election — the RGA spent $3.4 million in the 2011 special election for governor contending that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin “directed” state funds to his family’s greyhound breeding business and alleging ties to President Barack Obama — running such ads in the Democratic primary would be unprecedented.
While Thompson would not definitively rule out the possibility of ads in the primary, he dismissed it as “pure speculation” by the Justice campaign, and said, “We haven’t announced any plans to do anything like that.”
However, Justice campaign spokesman Grant Herring said the campaign believes the opposition research is aimed at attacking Justice in the May primary.
“I think it speaks for itself when they talk about bringing a film crew in March,” Herring said.
“After a failed session that did not create any jobs and with all the polls showing Jim Justice as the only candidate leading Bill Cole in the general election, Cole’s D.C. allies are now trying to influence the Democratic primary with out-of-state money,” he added.
Thompson did say the RGA considers Justice to be the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, based on polling to date.
“We definitely see him as having a good shot at being the nominee, sure,” Thompson said.
Cole, a first-term Senate president, is running unopposed in the Republican primary for governor, while Justice faces Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin in the May 10 Democratic primary election.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.