Hoppy Kercheval, Opinion

Chris Miller is making noise in the governor’s race

Chris Miller is emerging as a wild card in the race for the Republican nomination for governor in West Virginia. An indicator of his building momentum came this week when the Club for Growth started running TV ads attacking Miller.

The Club for Growth is backing Attorney General Patrick Morrisey for governor, and the PAC is paying for the ads. It wouldn’t be doing that if it was not worried about Miller becoming a factor.

Miller’s mother is 1st District Congresswoman Carol Miller, but until now, the younger Miller was best known for his hyper-energetic and creative TV ads for his family’s car businesses. Those ads have raised his profile in the tri-state region, but he is less well known in the northern and eastern parts of the state.

But here is why Miller is a legitimate contender:

He has money. The most recent finance reports showed Miller with $3.7 million on hand, and the bulk of that came from a personal loan of $3 million he made to his campaign. Morrisey had $1.8 million, Moore Capito reported $1.2 million, while Secretary of State Mac Warner checked in at $165,000 in the bank.

Of course, having your own money and being willing to spend it can be two different things. So far, Miller has been willing to write a big check, but can he go back to the well, if necessary, if and when the race is tight?

But Miller has something else going for him — a big personality and a presence. I don’t know him that well so maybe that is his nature or maybe he perfected his presentation in all those TV commercials selling cars and trucks.

He has demonstrated an ability to crystallize a point into an understandable sound bite. No, sound bites are not policy, and policy is important, but so is the ability to communicate with voters.

He is also quick on his feet. Miller had the best quip of Tuesday night’s debate among the four leading candidates in Raleigh County after Morrisey criticized a position taken by Capito’s mother, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito.

Miller said to Morrisey, “You must not be from West Virginia because people from West Virginia know you don’t talk about somebody’s momma.”  

The crowd loved it, and when I quizzed about a dozen West Virginia Tech students who were serving as ushers at the debate, nearly all of them thought Miller had the best night.

But policy is important and here is where Miller runs into trouble. For example, he has said during two debates now that, if elected, he will immediately get rid of the state income tax.

First, that simply is not possible without legislative approval. Gov. Jim Justice learned the hard way what happens when a bull tries to storm through the china shop that is the West Virginia Legislature. House and Senate members take seriously their position as the third branch of government and they are not inclined to acquiesce just because a governor says so.

But in addition, the immediate elimination of the state income tax would reduce the General Revenue by at least $2 billion, or 40% of the entire budget. That would require massive cuts in, well, everything. It won’t work.

When confronted with those facts, Miller is unperturbed. He counters with his pro-business positions and the benefits of unleashing capitalism. Hey, the guy has confidence.

Also during Tuesday night’s debate, he referred to the pandemic as the “scam-demic.” That is a flippant sound bite that may appeal to conspiracy theorists, but it is an insult to the West Virginians who lost loved ones to COVID.

The race for the Republican nomination for governor is interesting. They are all toeing the conservative pro-Trump line and they agree on most issues. Yet they are four very different individuals. That means personality and presentation may matter more than usual.

The fact that there are already negative ads against Chris Miller shows that others in this race also know that.

Hoppy Kercheval is a MetroNews anchor and the longtime host of “Talkline.” Contact him at hoppy.kercheval@wvradio.com.