The Times West Virginian

West Virginia

December 14, 2012

Candidate financing program up for review

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s first candidate to campaign — and win — with public financing believes others should be offered this alternative to traditional fundraising, but not necessarily through the program the state experimented with this year.

Supreme Court Justice-elect Allen Loughry was the only person who sought to participate in the pilot, created solely for the 2012 court race. But the Republican ended up leaving the program in September, when a court ruling blocked him from receiving additional money under its “rescue” funding provision.

“I believe that my election does demonstrate that such a program can work and that an average West Virginian can and should be able to participate in our political system,” Loughry said Thursday. “We need to change what didn’t work and improve upon what did work.”

Loughry commented after the State Election Commission agreed Thursday to compile a report on the pilot program. It also ordered an independent audit of its finances. It expects to return $2.6 million to the state treasury when it expires as scheduled on July 1, commission members were told.

“I thought it was a success, in terms of how it was administered, but you could also say it was a success in terms of a candidate using public financing winning,” said Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, West Virginia’s elections chief and a commission member.

A tie vote by the commission initially denied Loughry the rescue funding, meant to help him keep pace with opponents. Loughry also sparred with Tennant’s office after it requested an attorney general’s advisory opinion that concluded such funding was unconstitutional.

That advice cited a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found a similar provision in an Arizona program wrongly deterred would-be contributors to opposing candidates or groups. Loughry petitioned the state Supreme Court to seek the funding’s release. The state court unanimously held that the 2011 ruling applied to West Virginia’s program.

The State Election Commission defended the program in Loughry’s challenge.

“A pilot program is, you test it and you see if it works, and see if you want to extend it and modify it,” commission member Robert Rupp noted Thursday.

But the program did provide Loughry with $350,000 for the general election. That helped his campaign air TV ads in a statewide race that competed with contests for president, U.S. Senate, governor and other offices for attention. While his campaign was allowed to raise private funds in the wake of the September ruling, it reported attracting around $30,000 as of Oct. 21. Final election finance reports are due later this month.

“A candidate who participates in a program like this must have confidence that it is going to provide them with sufficient resources to run a viable campaign,” Loughry said Thursday.

With two seats up on the court, Loughry and incumbent Justice Robin Davis prevailed Nov. 6 over Circuit Judge John Yoder, a Republican, and Democrat Tish Chafin. Between the general election and a primary that featured four other Democrats, Davis and Chafin each raised at least $424,000 and spent at least $1.2 million as of Oct. 21. Both loaned their campaigns personal funds. Yoder raised and spent less than $35,000. He came in third against Chafin, a recent State Bar president.

Concerns over heavy campaign spending on judicial races, and whether it erodes public confidence in the courts, prompted the pilot project. West Virginia’s 2004 Supreme Court race became the subject of a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision. That ruling barred Justice Brent Benjamin from hearing any cases involving Massey Energy Co. after its then-chief executive, Don Blankenship, spent more than $3 million to aid his election.

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