It’s only June, but with the apparent defeat of 10 incumbent legislators in Tuesday’s primary election, it is clear that, when the West Virginia Legislature convenes for the 2021 session next February, it will have a much different composition — including a new Senate president.
One of the long-serving incumbents defeated Tuesday, Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said Wednesday he could not recall a previous time when so many incumbents were defeated in a primary election.
All 10 incumbent legislators apparently defeated Tuesday — with significant numbers of absentee and provisional ballots still outstanding — are Republicans, three state senators and seven delegates.
“Once you put a title on someone, whether it’s Senate president or House speaker pro tem, you kind of have a target on your back,” Cowles said, in one explanation for the purge.
Cowles, who is the current speaker pro tem and previously had served as House majority leader during his 14 years in the Legislature, was referencing the major upset of the night, the defeat of Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson.
Cowles said he believes Carmichael was done in by being in a three-person race, with former Delegate Jim Butler drawing the more conservative Republican voters, and primary winner Amy Grady, a school teacher, drawing votes from the “Ditch Mitch” movement of teachers and others who objected to his handling of teacher strikes in 2017 and 2018.
Carmichael could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Another factor, Cowles said, is that the open primary process allowed independent voters whose politics are left-of-center to middle-of-the-road to act as a disruptive influence in the Republican primaries.
“I think they did a good job of encouraging liberal-left and centralist voters to vote in the Republican primary,” Cowles said.
Indeed, in all 10 Senate and House districts where Republican incumbents were defeated Tuesday, Democrats were either running unopposed or, in two races, the party had no candidates.
In open primaries, independent voters may request a ballot for either major party, or request a ballot for nonpartisan races. Voters with no party affiliation currently account for 23 percent of all registered voters, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Gov. Jim Justice appointed three of the defeated incumbents: Sen. John Pitsenbarger, R-Nicholas, appointed Oct. 17, 2019; Delegate Chuck Little, R-Wirt, appointed May 19, 2019; and Delegate Kevan Bartlett, R-Kanawha, appointed Oct. 21, 2019.
Other incumbents defeated Tuesday were: Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming; Delegate Martin “Rick” Atkinson, R-Roane; Delegate Scott Cadle, R-Mason; Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer; and Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley.
During his two years in the House, Porterfield made headlines for homophobic comments and, in the last regular session, for run-ins with House leadership that, on one occasion, led to his demanding that bills be read on the floor in their entirety, bringing the legislative process to a grinding halt.