Rusty Webb, a Charleston attorney and former member of the state Senate and House of Delegates, also does political commentary for Charleston radio station WCHS-AM.
He says the news that McGraw, the longtime former state Attorney General and former Supreme Court justice, was seeking another term on the bench was “rather unexpected.”
“It makes the Supreme Court race far, far more interesting,” Webb said. “He has a great name recognition, and he has a base – not only around the state because of his time as Attorney General and Supreme Court justice – but a regional base in southern West Virginia as well. And, southern West Virginia tends to vote for southern West Virginians.”
But, Webb said Beth Walker and Justice Brent Benjamin both also have statewide name recognition.
“Beth, of course, ran before and barely lost,” he said. “And Brent, of course, has been on the bench for 12 years and defeated McGraw’s brother Warren for that seat.
“Also, you have Bill Wooton with some name recognition as a former state Senate and House member. He especially is known in the southern part of the state.”
Rounding out the five candidate field is Clay County attorney Wayne King. Starting this year, all judicial elections in West Virginia are non-partisan. That means the candidates aren’t tied to political parties. It also means the May 10 primary is the only election for judicial seats.
Webb said he believes the candidate that has a best showing in the eastern Panhandle has a good shot at winning the 12-year term on the bench.
“The political power base in the state is now where the population base is,” Webb said. “And that’s in the eastern Panhandle. Whoever wins the eastern Panhandle wins the race, if you ask me.”
Webb cited current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s victory in 2012 over Darrell McGraw as evidence of that.
“Morrisey demonstrated you can come out of that area and win the race,” Webb said. “The people of the eastern Panhandle have felt so left out for so long, they vote regionally for candidates who run in their area. Alex Mooney (U.S. Congressman) did the same thing.”
Webb also said this year’s switch to non-partisan judicial elections will be another dynamic in the race.
“That frees up people on both sides of the political aisle to support candidates who aren’t necessarily a member of their party,” Webb said. “Even though we know what parties all of these people were a member of.
“Labor and trial lawyers, for example, are probably in somewhat of a dilemma because they’re going to have to pick and choose among a few candidates. The traditional Republican sides – manufacturing, coal and banking – seem to be supporting Beth Walker.
“And, I understand Justice Benjamin is going the public financing route. That says a little about his base support. It would appear, on the surface, that those typical Republican groups don’t think he’s been as conservative as they want a Supreme Court justice to be.”
However, Webb said he thinks the current set of five state Supreme Court justices “appear to be less political than any that I’ve seen in my career.”
“I’ll be interested to see where the moderate and liberal support is going to go between McGraw, Benjamin and Wooton,” he said. “It seems there’s been no real solid support for one particular candidate.”
As for the state Attorney General race, Webb said he expects the race between Republican incumbent Morrisey and Democratic challenger Doug Reynolds to be competitive.
“Morrisey has been focused on expanding the reciprocity concealed weapons with other states,” Webb said. “And the other, that towers over everything, is his fight against the so-called War on Coal by the Obama Administration.
“There is a perception he isn’t focused on consumer protection, which is false.”
But he said Reynolds comes with some regional name recognition and resources because his family owns Chapman Printing and other companies.
“What I said about the Supreme Court race is consistent with the AG’s race,” Webb said. “Whoever wins the eastern Panhandle wins the race. Reynolds will really have to get out and about in the state and try to offset the base Morrisey has in the eastern Panhandle.
“I think Doug Reynolds will have to focus more on the consumer protection angle in the campaign and, if he wins, when he’s in office.”
Webb cited McGraw’s years of work touting his consumer protection work as AG.
“McGraw constantly held press conferences and put out press releases,” Webb said. “You should show where you’ve worked to get relief for consumers. Morrisey is more focused on those other two issues. He is doing the consumer protection. It just hasn’t been as well advertised.
“Still, Morrisey has the advantage being the incumbent and having all of the eastner Panhandle support. He has the name recognition across the state now. I think it will be a tough campaign.”