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In W. Va. primary, establishment candidates for governor highlight culture war issues

An aerial view of the West Virginia State Capitol Building. Primaries Tuesday will decide who's facing off for governor in November.
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An aerial view of the West Virginia State Capitol Building. Primaries Tuesday will decide who's facing off for governor in November.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With incumbent Gov. Jim Justice reaching his term limit and running for the U.S. Senate, a field of Republicans is competing to replace him in a primary Tuesday. While they address issues specific to the mountain state, like the future of coal productionand low school scores, the national debate over transgender rights is filling many of their campaign ads.

"Fairy tales aren't facts, a boy is not a girl," says an ad for candidate Chris Miller. "I'm fighting to make sure that girls are never forced to play sports with guys," says one from candidate and current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey.

A political action committee ran one ad that referred to transgender children as "monsters." The rhetoric worries some West Virginians, like Billy Wolfe with the West Virginia ACLU.

"Their campaigns are built on demonizing people, and villainizing people to score cheap political points," Wolfe said. "We know that this kind of rhetoric not only affects young people, it also leads to legislation that causes real harm."

West Virginia went for former President Donald Trump in the last two elections and leans heavily Republican. So the winner of the GOP primary will probably be a frontrunner in November as he takes on the lone Democrat, three-term Huntington Mayor Steve Williams. The Republicans are pitching voters with appeals based on their pro-Trump, anti-Biden credentials and pledges to fight transgender rights.

The four main contenders are firmly in the state's GOP establishment. There's three-term Attorney General Morrisey, known for mounting legal challenges against the Obama and Biden administration on things like environmental regulation.

He faces opposition from former member of the West Virginia House of Delegates Moore Capito. Capito (pronounced CAP-ee-toh) is the son of West Virginia U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and grandson of the late Gov. Arch Moore.

There's also car dealership magnate Miller, whose mother is Republican U.S. Rep. Carol Miller. And there's three-term Secretary of State Mac Warner, who says he's tried to stay out of the attack-ads fray.

"Getting excited doesn't solve the issues needed to assess what's going on," Warner said.

On the major issues, it can be hard to distinguish between them. All four candidates are strongly pro coal, saying that renewable energy is welcome but fossil fuels are still key to the future of the country's power supply.

"Our fossil fuels are going to lead this country in the grid stabilization that we are going to require over probably my children's lifetime," Capito said. "We have to ensure that our coal and natural gas in West Virginia are leading the way."

The candidates also tout plans for improving the state's lagging educational results in ways that mostly continue a trend toward private schooling.

"Every year, the legislature is taking more and more money out of public schools and they're putting that into private schools," said Marybeth Beller, political scientist and associate professor at Marshall University. "And we don't have any solid data to show that the private schools are doing any better whatsoever. Yet, we continue to put money into the private sector."

The economy is in fairly good shape, so that's less of an issue. The candidates do talk about policy alternatives in forums and interviews but in campaign ads it's largely broad conservative brush strokes and culture wars rhetoric.

"One of the things that we know in science is that hate and fear mobilize voters," Beller said.

Checking in with about 15 lunch-hour voters recently in Charleston, in the shadow of the Capitol dome, many say they are turning off — literally — like Linda Workman from South Charleston.

"My husband automatically clicks every ad off as soon as it comes on," Workman said. "They're all the same. I don't believe anything anyone says."

That sentiment gives some hope to backers of the one contender in the Democratic primary, also on Tuesday. Huntington Mayor Williams can reserve his campaign push for the general election. That gives some hope to Democrats in the red state.

State Del. Mike Pushkin, chair of the West Virginia Democratic Party, said Williams offers an alternative to "this ridiculous cultural-war stuff that we see on the other side."


Randy Yohe covers state government for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Randy Yohe
[Copyright 2024 West Virginia Public Broadcasting]