Super PAC makes rare splash on House Speaker’s race

CHARLESTON — The vote for a new leader of West Virginia’s House of Delegates comes with a new twist, the influence of a super PAC going to bat for Delegate Roger Hanshaw.

The newly formed 1863 PAC has been running advertisements on behalf of Hanshaw, R-Clay. The support has been on social media and broadcast, including on West Virginia Radio stations.

“In all my years, I cannot recall any time we had radio ads or newspaper ads in favor of one candidate over another,” said Delegate John Overington, R-Berkeley, who is retiring after 33 years in the House.

“But it shows that there’s a lot of competition, and I think that’s healthy.”

Delegates will be choosing a new speaker after the resignation of Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to run for state Supreme Court.

Besides Hanshaw, the other frontrunner is House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.

Others in the mix are Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, and Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer. Cowles and Gearheart are interested in holding the position just through the General Election.

The full House will vote on a new speaker at 9 a.m. today. The Republican majority voted on its leader Tuesday evening during a caucus behind closed doors. Democrats in the House will also be caucusing, although it’s likely they’ll stick with the current minority leader, Tim Miley.

The campaigning for Hanshaw by 1863 PAC has been statewide and unusually public.

Miley had not seen or heard the advertisements for Hanshaw but agreed such an approach is unusual.

“Outside influences have very little, if any, impact on a Speaker’s Race,” said Miley, D-Harrison, who was House speaker from 2013-’14. “Most of the time, the decision-making process by the members is driven by personal motivations.”

Miley added, “Outside influences getting involved may backfire.”

The 1863 PAC, with its reference to the year of the state’s founding, is new to West Virginia’s political scene.

The political action committee incorporated with the Secretary of State’s office in early May. The incorporating officer is Trevor Stanley, a partner in the politically active Baker Hostetler firm in Washington, D.C.

1863 PAC’s first post on its Facebook page was Aug. 19. A spokesman indicated during a telephone interview the PAC plans to support candidates in delegates races through November and beyond.

He didn’t want to be named out of deference to Stanley and others.

“We’re an organization that supports Roger’s leadership, and while we know his constituents and colleagues hold him in high esteem, we wanted to make sure that as he campaigned for speaker, voters state-wide could be confident in his leadership moving forward.”

A super PAC is a type of independent political action committee that may raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions and individuals but is not permitted to contribute to or coordinate directly with parties or candidates.

Bob Murray, the chief executive of Murray Energy, the coal company bearing his name, hosted a fundraiser for 1863 PAC, as well as for West Virginia’s Future PAC, which issued recent statements in support of Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

Nelson was Finance chairman during West Virginia’s recent budget shortfalls. Gov. Jim Justice, with the support of Murray, proposed a sliding scale for severance tax that would have affected coal and natural gas, competitors in the energy market.

Another connection to 1863 PAC is Delegate Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, who publicly supports Hanshaw. Moore acknowledged friendships with those at 1863 PAC and said he is not directly involved with its political efforts.

Moore said a PAC weighing in on a Statehouse speaker’s race through advertisements on broadcast and social media is a natural evolution.

“It seems to be the way electoral politics goes these days,” he said. “Name any candidate who is running statewide or congressional or otherwise who has not had some sort of PAC involved.”

Moore doubted the votes of the Republican caucus would be swayed by such efforts.

“I don’t think the PAC will influence anyone’s votes,” Moore said. “But I think it does help to raise the profile of a person who is running.”

A veteran Democratic campaigner, Mike Plante said the strategy by 1863 PAC is unusual.

“I’ve never seen it,” Plante said. “I don’t recall anybody doing it before. It’s an interesting strategy.”

Plante noted the target audience for the statewide campaign is 64 Republican delegates (actually, 63 with Armstead’s resignation) plus close political observers.

“The audience is not really all the people in the little white houses out there,” Plante said. “It’s the opinion makers, the political elite. It’s showing there’s a gravitas for this guy and the ability for him to do something different like this.”

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