CHARLESTON – David McKinley’s bid to remain in the U.S. House of Representatives isn’t a done deal, but it seems unlikely he’ll lose in November.
Most polls show McKinley with a commanding lead over Democratic opponent Kendra Fershee, a West Virginia University law professor.
Still, a Super PAC has spent about $500,000 promoting McKinley’s campaign.
Patients for Affordable Drugs, or P4AD, has been running ads touting McKinley, saying he “stands up to the drug companies, demanding lower prices.”
P4AD isn’t just throwing money at Republican campaigns. It’s running ads for Democrats that seem assured of victory. It’s promoting Democrats in close races where the money might make a difference.
In all, the P4AD super PAC called P4AD Action, is spending more than $8 million on seven races this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission data.
Billionaire John Arnold is behind 99 percent of the funding for P4AD. Arnold was a trader at Enron. After Enron, he started his own hedge fund and became “the best trader that ever lived,” according to one competitor. He retired at 38 to focus on philanthropy. He started the Laura and John Arnold Foundation.
Now, the 44-year-old is worth $3.3 billion. And he now has decided to take on what he calls an abusive pharma industry that “doesn’t price drugs fairly.”
One local political consultant said he understands what Arnold is doing.
“I think this is basically a wealthy person who has a political issue on his mind, and he’s sort of spending money as he sees fit,” said Greg Thomas, who has worked on numerous West Virginia election campaigns over the years. “On the surface, it might seem that there’s no political rhyme or reason. But this is just one guy – or one guy and his wife – who wants lower prescription drug costs.
“David McKinley has done some stuff to make prescription drug costs lower. So here’s a guy that’s supporting this issue. And I know $500,000 is a lot of money, but to this guy (Arnold) it’s not.”
Thomas has worked with former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship on his U.S. Senate campaign as well as other efforts, such as Blankenship’s bid earlier this decade to get more Republicans in office across the state and Blankenship’s effort to eliminate the state food sales tax.
“People like this Arnold guy have their issue,” Thomas said. “They’re focused on it. I don’t think it’s some sort of political scam.
“He’s a guy who has something on his mind, and he’s out there making himself heard. This is just his way of making sure he’s heard.
“Look, you never know what triggers someone. This couple … they have a lot of money, they’re younger, they like dabbling in politics. This is probably mostly issue related and probably a little bit of fun for them, to be honest.”
Thomas said he suspects McKinley has never met Arnold, who Thomas suspects is more liberal than most McKinley supporters.
“I’m sure McKinley woke up one day and was like, ‘Thanks!’” Thomas said. “A candidate can’t ask someone or a group to do something like that, and he can’t stop him from doing it either. It just works out in McKinley’s favor this time.
“The issue isn’t partisan, but McKinley doesn’t toe the Republican party line. He does what he thinks is best.”
Thomas said Arnold might be thinking you can get more with a carrot than a stick.
“He’s sending the message that there are other people who’ll take the steps he wants to see, so he’ll support these people,” Thomas said.
Thomas said many of the so-called dark money PACs are similar to P4AD.
“It’s just some retired rich person getting involved and doesn’t want to be harassed at home,” Thomas said. “It’s infinitely easier to get large political contributions out of self-made people than going to a corporate board. And it’s bi-partisan.
“I’ve worked with self-funding campaigns. Some people have more time than money, and some have more money than time. People like the Arnolds don’t have a lot of time to go door-to-door, but they can write a check and feel passionately about an issue.”
Thomas said the 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC changed the game. That ruling said political spending is protected under the First Amendment, meaning corporations and other groups could spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities as long as it was done independently of a party or candidate.
“People might complain about it, but if you’re these people, why shouldn’t you be allowed to speak?” Thomas said. “And the bottom line is that it’ll all work itself out.
“We’re still in a 50-50 world. There are people all along the spectrum on both sides of all issues. There always will be complaints and questions. But everyone is entitled to have a voice.”