In what might have been the closest statewide election in West Virginia history, Beckley employment/labor lawyer Sam Brown Petsonk declared victory Thursday afternoon in the Democratic Party primary for state attorney general, as canvassing of ballots was completed in 54 of 55 counties.
However, Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, announced Thursday that he is not conceding the race, with canvassing not yet reported in Harrison County, a county he carried on election night with 63% of the vote.
As of late Thursday afternoon, Petsonk led the statewide election by 157 votes, a margin of less than 0.1 percent.
“This election again proves that every vote matters,” Sponaugle said in a statement. “It may be the closest statewide election in the history of West Virginia. I simply will not declare victory or defeat until all the votes are counted.”
Noting that many states — but not West Virginia — require an automatic recount if a statewide election is decided by 1% of the vote or less, Sponaugle said, “This race will be decided by 150 votes, or less, out of 174,000 votes cast, which is a .00086% difference.”
He added, “I want all the votes counted before making any decision, and any declaration on the outcome of this race is simply premature at this time.”
With Harrison County outstanding, Petsonk led with 86,821 votes to Sponaugle’s 86,664.
In a victory statement, Petsonk thanked friends, family and volunteers for their support of his campaign.
“This campaign is about protecting what our people have earned, and defending our basic rights,” he said.
He turned his focus to the general election, where the eventual primary winner will face two-term incumbent Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican.
“The time is up on Morrisey’s empty promises and attacks on our health care and working families,” Petsonk said.
The outcome of the June 9 election was still uncertain nine days later, as the coronavirus pandemic led to unusually high numbers of absentee balloting by voters opting to avoid polling places.
According to the Secretary of State’s Office, in Harrison County, 3,739 Democrat absentee ballots were requested and 3,190 ballots were returned, leaving 549 ballots outstanding — an unknown number of which might have been voted as provisional ballots on Election Day.
Earlier, Petsonk, a lawyer who served as a legislative aide to Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Carte Goodwin, both D-W.Va., noted that he had predicted on election night that the race would tighten as outstanding ballots were tabulated. On election night, Sponaugle held about a 700-vote lead.
“I’m going to stick with what I’ve been saying since Election Day,” Petsonk said. “The majority of the outstanding votes come from counties that I carried. So, if the trends continue, I am the likely winner.”
In another hotly contested race, in the 3rd Congressional District Democratic Party primary, Hillary Turner edged out Lacy Watson by 67 votes — 16,817 votes to 16,750, a margin of 0.12% — with canvassing complete.
In the four-person race, Paul Davis finished third, with 14,008 votes, followed by Jeff Lewis, with 9,525.
Absentee ballots apparently were the difference in the race, with Watson leading by more than 400 votes on election night.
The winner faces first-term incumbent Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., in the general election.