Analysts say money, crowded race key to Mooney’s 2nd district win
If Tuesday’s decisive victory proved anything, the Alex Mooney campaign believes it showed West Virginia voters care more about message than Maryland.
“Anyone watching in West Virginia and anyone watching at the national level sees West Virginians care where their candidates stand on the issues and not where they were born originally,” said Nick Clemons, Mooney’s campaign manager.
Several Republicans and political analysts think the former Maryland lawmaker and state party chairman’s win in the 2nd Congressional District GOP primary is due in large part to effective use of money in a crowded candidate field.
Unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s Office show Mooney garnered nearly 36 percent of votes cast in the primary. That easily surpassed Berkeley Springs pharmacist Ken Reed’s 23 percent and former U.S. International Trade Commission appointee Charlotte Lane’s 18 percent.
Mooney will face former West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey in the bid to fill the seat being vacated by Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. Capito easily won her bid for the GOP nomination in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Clemons described a straightforward game plan for how the Mooney campaign approached the primary race.
“Our strategy was really to be strong across the board, and luckily we had the resources to do that,” Clemons said.
“We knew Kanawha was going to be tough. We were very happy with the results that we achieved there.”
Mooney moved to the Eastern Panhandle in 2013 and announced his bid for Congress shortly thereafter. The campaign expected to do well in the region’s GOP strong areas but feared Lane would put up good numbers in Kanawha County, where she lives.
However, Lane was only able to muster about 350 more votes in Kanawha County than Mooney. Reed won his home county of Morgan, where a school levy helped push GOP turnout to more than 50 percent. But the win in the relatively small county was Reed’s only victory, with Mooney taking the remaining 15 of 17 counties in the 2nd district.
“Faced with a home state tired of his act and redistricted to ensure a GOP minority until the next ice age, Mooney showed up here last year with a bucket of other folks’ money and a simple conservative message,” state Republican consultant Rob Cornelius posted on Facebook after Mooney’s win.
“When his opponents failed to fund much beyond a whisper campaign to question his residency and W.Va. authenticity, the die was cast.”
Mooney started a campaign committee while considering a run for Congress in Maryland, but moved to West Virginia following redistricting in the state that favored Democrats. It’s the third state where he’s run for office, having failed in a bid for state office in New Hampshire while attending Dartmouth College.
The Mooney campaign spent more than $500,000 — the vast majority of which came from out-of-state donations — leading up to the primary. Reed, who loaned himself more than half a million dollars, spent hundreds of thousands as well, with Lane spending more than $400,000. But neither used that money to “go negative” and hammer Mooney, said one Republican consultant.
“Getting ammunition against Alex, all you have to do is Google him,” the consultant said.
The Lane campaign did purchase a radio advertisement that was critical of Mooney’s recent move, but it was late in the race. Clemons said the Lane campaign also had essentially no media in the Eastern Panhandle, a costly market for political advertising, at the end of the race.
Mooney and Reed crushed Lane in the eastern-most counties; Mooney received 4,067 votes combined in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties, with Reed earning 4,223 votes in that area. Lane received 515 votes total from the three counties.
In the greater Kanawha Valley Lane also suffered, due in part to strong showings from other candidates based in the area.
Former state lawmaker Steve Harrison earned 2,578 votes in Kanawha County and 514 in Putnam County. Putnam County’s Jim Moss beat Lane in the county, earning 867 of his total 1,625 in the area.
While Mooney would have beaten Lane even if she had all of Harrison’s and Moss’ votes, removing other challengers in the county would have made her seem like the inevitable pick for the seat, the Republican consultant said.
Lane and Reed also both attempted to cast themselves as another Capito. The longtime congresswoman never endorsed any candidate in the primary though, a move the consultant said likely would have led to a victory.
Instead, the nod for Mooney is another sign political power in West Virginia is moving away from Charleston, Cornelius said.
“While a few establishment GOP voters may cringe in South Hills, the 34,000+ who turned out clearly wanted something that was unapologetically conservative ... not trying to thread a needle by parsing positions on guns or life,” he posted. Capito easily carried the district in her recent elections, as did Republican presidential nominees. Despite the overwhelming voter registration advantage Democrats have in the district, that voting pattern is a more telling indicator, said national political analyst Kyle Kondik.
“A lot of those people aren’t Democrats,” said Kondik, who analyzes congressional races for Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“Maybe they voted for Joe Manchin, but a lot of them voted for Mitt Romney.”
A move like Mooney’s is rare for a candidate, although not unheard of: Kondik pointed to Scott Brown, a former U.S. senator in Massachusetts now running for Senate in New Hampshire. He expected Democrats to attack Mooney on the move, but didn’t think it was enough to currently tip the race out of Mooney’s favor.
Casey raised more than $800,000 and spent less than a third before fending off a primary challenge from state Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha. Clemons didn’t immediately know how much money the Mooney campaign had at the moment, but noted fundraising would likely be easier as the lone Republican in the field.
Clemons said he thought Democrats could attack Mooney on the recent move, but he believed that tactic would distract attention from the “conservative issues” West Virginians value.
“The Democrats are going to throw whatever they can at us, and they’re going to choose whatever sticks,” Clemons said.
Expect both camps to go through considerable amounts of money finding out what sticks. State GOP Chairman Conrad Lucas anticipated spending in excess of seven figures combined from both parties before the General Election in November.
Contact writer Dave Boucher at 304-348-4843 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/Dave_Boucher1.