Groups pour cash into W.Va. First District Senate contest

WHEELING — While candidates for West Virginia’s 1t Senatorial District seat mostly have talked about what they bring to the table, advocacy groups have been trying to get the message out about what each might take away.

Recent materials mailed out by two opposing political action committees have taken jabs at Republican Sen. Ryan Ferns and his Democratic challenger, William Ihlenfeld.

The group opposing Ferns has been funded primarily by organized labor unions, while the other criticizing Ihlenfeld has been funded primarily by big business, according to filings in the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office.

Oversized post cards sent by West Virginia’s Future PAC say Ihlenfeld’s law firm, Bailey-Glasser, represented Cardinal Health when six southern West Virginia counties sued the company for over-distributing opioids. Although Ihlenfeld, a former U.S. attorney, was not named as one of the attorneys representing the company, the message nonetheless asserts the representation by his employer as a reason “We can’t trust William Ihlenfeld to fight for us.”

Meanwhile, West Virginia Patriots for Liberty has been busy sending mailers of its own against Ferns. In one case, the group criticizes Ferns’ “$1.3 billion tax plan.” The card is referring to a proposed tax overhaul that came up during the 2017 legislative session.

Ferns, who is the Senate Majority Leader, was one of a group of Republican senators proposing a higher sales tax to help offset budget shortfalls. The group uses Ferns’ support of the measure as a reason to “Say no to high-tax Ferns.”

The trend for such groups to pay closer attention to state and local elections is growing, said Mike Queen, deputy chief of staff and communications director for West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner.

He said the groups tend to spend more money when the balance of power can change with just a few legislative seats.

“I think you’ll see more expenditure if Democrats want to take control of the House or Republicans want to maintain control of the Senate,” Queen said.

West Virginia law requires such groups to register with the Secretary of State’s office, file independent expenditure forms and place a disclaimer on printed material stating where the message originates and that they are not endorsed by any particular candidate. They also are prohibited from using any candidate’s name they do endorse on such ads, Queen said.

Both West Virginia’s Future PAC and West Virginia Patriots of Liberty have registered with the office, and their information can be found on the office’s website. Their expenditure forms are there, too. While the Future PAC has filed its quarterly form due by Friday, Patriots of Liberty has yet to file its report. However, Patriots of Liberty filed expenditure forms for its most recent expenses Oct. 18.

The forms list points of contact and individuals and corporations that contributed to the groups. They also list how much they spent supporting or opposing candidates.

In its form filed Oct. 10, West Virginia Future PAC said it paid $20,501.84 to Cold Spark Media to oppose Ihlenfeld. It also paid $11,027 to Fifth Influence to support Ferns, according to its Aug. 16 report. Although expense reports detail a variety of contributors both inside and outside the state, the largest contributor was St. Clairsville-based Murray Energy, which gave $72,000. The next highest contributor is Indiana, Pennsylvania, based Reschini Agency Inc., which gave $35,000.

Meanwhile, West Virginia Patriots for Liberty appears to have spent more money opposing Ferns, according to its filed reports. In its Oct. 18 report, it said it had paid $30,000 to Bouchard Gold Communications and $15,600 to Impact Politics to oppose West Virginia’s Senate majority leader. On Oct. 11, it said it paid $8,078.20 to Buying Time LLC and $21,000 to Impact Politics, both to oppose Ferns. On Oct. 5, it paid $4,039 to Buying Time to oppose him, and it said it paid $3,175.56 to Lookout Media and $4,200 against Ferns in its Sept. 29 report.

The money coming into Patriots for Liberty also appears to be greater, according to the reports. On Oct. 10, the group reported a $250,000 contribution from West Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council and a $150,000 contribution from International Union of Operating Engineers Local 132. Both labor unions list Charleston addresses.

A call made to Benjean Rapp, listed as the contact person for West Virginia’s Future PAC, was not returned. Lou Ann Johnson, a consultant for West Virginia Patriots for Liberty, returned a call made to that group’s point of contact, Charles Parker. She said Parker was traveling and unavailable for comment and that she was not authorized to speak on behalf of the group.

The candidates themselves have more modest budgets. In the latest campaign finance filing at the end of September, Ferns had raised $203,373 to Ihlenfeld’s $152,479. At that time, Ferns had a balance in his campaign of $135,708 to Ihlenfeld’s $96,679.

Queen said groups are particularly interested this year because both Democrats and Republicans have good candidates up for election.

Ferns, 35, has been in state politics since 2010 when he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates as a Democrat. He switched parties in 2013, and was elected as a Republican in 2014 to the state Senate.

The Wheeling Central Catholic High School graduate earned his doctorate in Physical Therapy from Wheeling Jesuit University.

Ihlenfeld, 46, served as U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia from 2010-16 and as an assistant prosecutor in Ohio and Brooke counties from 1997-2010. During his time as U.S. Attorney, Ihlenfeld formed a public corruption task force for the district, with his efforts yielding multiple convictions and jail time in a West Virginia Division of Highways bid-rigging and criminal racketeering enterprise.

The Wheeling Park High School graduate earned his juris doctor from West Virginia University’s College of Law.

Queen, himself once a member of the House of Delegates from Harrison County, said the Secretary’s office tries to keep elections clean and fair, especially when good candidates are involved.

“Warner has consistently said it’s our role to make sure elections are fair,” Queen said. “It’s up to these groups to get the people out to vote.”