CHARLESTON — Stephen Smith is couch surfing. Mike Folk turned out his own pockets. Woody Thrasher outraised them all.
There are signs of life and new entrants everywhere in the 2020 governor’s race in West Virginia, with the glaring exception of the incumbent.
Campaign finance reports indicate Gov. Jim Justice’s campaign has yet to begin any substantive fundraising effort and is underwater with debt. Meanwhile, his primary competitors have laid groundwork — one has purchased TV airtime and the rest are circling the state. Likewise, two new Democrats with some level of name recognition have announced plans to take him on.
As of Oct. 1, Justice’s reelection campaign has just $3,500 in its account and it owes nearly $94,000 in “unpaid bills,” about one-third of which is owed to Justice and his family’s businesses like The Greenbrier resort, Encore Leasing and Bluestone Resources. Justice himself has loaned the campaign $325,000 in personal funds in the past six months.
Last quarter, the campaign raised $13,200 from a combination of three employees of Justice’s companies, along with PACs linked to the National Rifle Association, Murray Energy and American Electric Power. His campaign reported one small-dollar (less than $250, by state standards) donor.
“How can an incumbent governor in the Republican Party, who has the relationship with (President Donald) Trump that he has, not have financial support from people across the state?” said Woody Thrasher, one of Justice’s primary challengers. “It’s mind-boggling to me.”
Roman Stauffer, who recently took over as Justice’s campaign manager, said in an emailed statement the governor is focused on improving the economy, fixing the roads and bettering schools. He said the best politics is good policy, and Justice is spending his time working for West Virginians.
“He continues to travel across the state, talking with West Virginians at town hall meetings, public appearances and local community events,” he said. “He intentionally did not focus on fundraising this past quarter and is committed to investing the resources necessary to win this campaign.”
Thrasher, who previously served as Justice’s Commerce secretary before switching parties to run against him in the primary, raised more funds this quarter than any other candidate in the race thus far. He raised more than $250,000, not accounting for the nearly $660,000 he personally loaned the campaign since announcing.
He attributed the haul to shoe leather campaigning, and what he described as a skepticism among Republican primary voters at Justice’s rosy depiction of the economy. He said people aren’t fooled when Justice issues news releases highlighting “blips” of promising data, and they’re concerned about an undiversified economy that rises and falls with energy markets.
“There are a group of voters who pay attention, they look at the governor’s results skeptically and they evaluate them, and they realize there is not substance there,” he said.
If there’s one thing unifying the Republican candidates in the primary, it’s personal loans. Along with Thrasher and Justice, former state delegate Mike Folk has put $91,000 in personal wealth into his campaign.
Folk noted the difference between him loaning his campaign funds versus Justice’s campaign leaving a trail of debts to other businesses.
“The biggest thing that stood out with me on Justice’s campaign finance, and this is his modus operandi for running his businesses, is that he had some $90,000 of unpaid bills and only $3,500 cash on hand,” Folk said. “That’s not a very good balance sheet, now is it?”
Folk said while he doesn’t have the wealth of his GOP counterparts, he’s the only candidate in the primary who has generated grassroots financial support (about $4,300 in small-dollar donations this quarter), and his libertarian principles will distinguish him from two “self-dealing” figures in his primary.
A key difference among the campaigns comes in their spending. Thrasher’s campaign disclosed spending on things like meals, travel, fundraising and advertising — regular campaign fodder.
On the other hand, Justice’s spending leans heavily toward consulting groups and a few town hall and dinner events (four town halls, per a count by The Weirton Daily Times). Stauffer did not respond to questions about the accuracy of the count or what other campaign work the governor has been up to.
“We think the way you campaign is the way you govern,” Smith, the first Democrat to enter the race, said. “Looking at our opponents, the way they are going to govern is to spend their money on out-of-state interests and consultants who tell them what to do.”
In Smith’s corner, the disclosures show a lot of spending on staffing and travel, but little in the way of hotel stays.
“We don’t waste money on things we don’t have to,” he said. “Most of the time I sleep on guest beds, but I’ve had my fair share of couches, too.”
For the second straight quarter, Smith has shown a knack for drumming up large sums of money off of small (less than $250) donations. He said his campaign has held 124 town halls and counting, and is using them to crowd source a political platform and build up an army of fundraisers and volunteers.
Of the roughly $150,000 he raised this quarter, about $50,000 of it came from small donations from hundreds of donors. A quick skim through his disclosure makes clear the volume of donors backing him, some chipping in $2 at a time. This, he said, is evidence of broad base support in lieu of the “cold-calling rich people” model that has become the norm in politics.
“When they see us doing something fundamentally different, not just talking differently but acting differently, I think that’s when people say maybe this is worth a little of my time and money,” he said.
“It’s not just how much money you raise; it’s who you raise it from and who you spend it on that matters. We’re going to get a lot more mileage out of organizing everyday West Virginians who spread their own message about what they want through their families and neighborhoods than Justice or Thrasher will get out of paying a consultant to do something.”
Through most of the filing period, Smith ran largely unopposed. In recent weeks, both Boone County state Sen. Ron Stollings and Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango have announced plans to enter the race.
Between them, Salango has expressed a willingness to self-finance to overcome low name recognition outside of Kanawha County, and Stollings has served as a senator since 2007 — all factors for tough competition.
Salango is an investor in HD Media, which owns the Charleston Gazette-Mail and The Herald-Dispatch, along with the Coal Valley News, The Logan Banner, the Putnam Herald, The Independent Herald, The Wayne County News and Williamson Daily News.
Another Democrat with a comparatively lower profile, Jody Murphy, has filed precandidacy papers to run, as well. He recently drafted a platform calling for ideas like giving away land to attract new business and offering cash incentives to new residents, among other things.
Several other candidates have filed precandidacy papers, though their reports reflect more dormant campaigns.