CHARLESTON – A combination of a number of factors likely is responsible for the poor showing of candidates backed by Don Blankenship, according to a top state political scientist.
"It caught me unexpected," Dr. Robert Rupp from West Virginia Wesleyan University said Wednesday afternoon. "I'm sorting through it all right now."
Rupp said Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, had a novel approach to his election efforts that included the And For The Sake Of The Kids political action committee, lots of yard signs, billboards and various ads focusing on issues and the voting records of the targeted incumbents.
The final tally on money spent by Blankenship is somewhere between $2 million and $3 million.
"It looked on paper as if it was a well-funded strategy that used everything from surveys to t-shirts to target mailings," Rupp said. "It was an across the board full-court press with four emotional issues to frame it."
Still, all but one House Democrat targeted by Blankenship won re-election, and most of the Republican challengers he supported failed in their bids.
Republicans lost four seats in the House of Delegates and two in the state Senate. Now, the GOP has 28 seats in the 100-seat House and 11 in the 34-seat Senate.
Rupp said there are a few possibilities about the outcome.
First, he said Blankenship might have revealed his hand too soon.
"A Republican politician once told me that when you're in the minority, the only thing you have is surprise," Rupp said. "Blankenship may have announced too early and too public."
Rupp compared that to the 2002 elections when several key Democratic incumbents, such as Oshel Craigo, lost across the state.
"The 2002 ambush was totally unexpected," Rupp said. "This time, it was all very public and very personal."
Another potential reason for the lackluster showing, Rupp said, was the fact that this wasn't a vote against a single person or issue as it was in 2004 when Blankenship was a key component in the ouster of Warren McGraw from the state Supreme Court and the defeat of a pension bond issue pushed in 2005 by Gov. Joe Manchin.
"He was successful doing one-on-one races," Rupp said. "But this time, he had several key issues, and he was asking voters to vote for all of these candidates and to vote against all of these others."
Also, Rupp said Blankenship was facing an uphill battle against national anti-Republican sentiment, a strong Democratic majority in the state and a re-energized state Democratic effort.
"When it became an issue of 'Don or No Don,' the Democrats had a successful counter-attack," Rupp said. "Blankenship did more to unify the Democratic Party and mobilize it. Then, there was the anti-Republican tide on the national level."
Others suggested that, too, to other state media outlets. Including Blankenship himself.
"I don't know whether I did it or (President) Bush did it," Blankenship was quoted in the Gazette, referring to the invigorated Democratic Party. "You'll have to figure that out."
Carrie Webster, one of the incumbents targeted by Blankenship, easily retained her seat in the 31st House District.
"We've weathered attacks from Blankenship, from the West Virginia Family Foundation, and from Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse," Webster told the Gazette. "So I am very encouraged that we performed as well as or better than in previous elections.
"Many people came up to me this year and said they planned to vote straight Democratic ticket for the first time in their life. They wanted to tell Don Blankenship that the state is not for sale."
State Republican Chairman Doug McKinney expressed a similar sentiment.
"His advisers were totally wrong," McKinney told the Associated Press. "We underestimated how mad Don's campaign was going to make the Democrats.
"I think people were mad about what they saw as Don's over-involvement in the election."
One more factor mentioned by Rupp was that Blankenship targeted House members who are "so local" to their constituents.
"You may not know much about your justices or amendments, but you do know about your delegate," Rupp said. "They have a personal connection. He might have had more success on Senate level. But the delegate races, they're personal."
In the final days of the campaign, Rupp said he noticed that the message about Blankenship changed.
"It was not only Don Blankenship doing all of this, it was an outsider said this," Rupp said. "It was interesting how the message changed at the end. And we in West Virginia are very sensitive to outsiders telling us what to do."
Blankenship maintains residence in Sprigg in Mingo County, right on the border with Kentucky. Massey Energy is headquartered in Richmond, Va.
Undermines the fact that all you need is a lot of money and good organization and technology. It's got to be more than just money and technology. It has to fit into the state political landscape.
State Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey was quoted as saying "Blankenship spent a lot of money to do nothing."
Blankenship, however, disagreed. He told other media outlets he thought his efforts were worthwhile.
"I think it's already turned out well for the public because I think we'll get a food tax reduction, we're going to get parental notification, we're going to have less likelihood of drunk drivers on the road whether we win one seat or 30 seats," Blankenship, who didn't respond to interview requests from The Record, told WOWK-TV. The AP also quoted him as saying his campaign was "sort of like priming a pump and … people will begin to be more attentive and more aware."
In Thursday's edition of The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, Blankenship refused to take credit even for Republican challenger Carol Miller's victory veteran delegate Margarette Leach, who recently has been a victim of poor health.
"My advertising didn't have any success for the other candidates that we were promoting, so I don't see any argument that it helped Ms. Miller either," he told The Herald-Dispatch. "I'm trying to help the state make a fundamental change and join the mainstream. I think we lost, and I think that's bad for the kids and bad for the state."
Blankenship told The Herald-Dispatch he doesn't know what he do next in terms of politics.
"There is no sense in advertising and informing people, if we don't get a good result," he said. "It won't be so much my ability or willingness to do it. It will be whether I conclude at that time that people will listen to that message."