CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Switching to the Republican Party turned out to be a good move for some former Democrats in primary races for the West Virginia Senate.
Mark Hunt and Mike Oliverio won their respective GOP parties Tuesday in their bids to return to the Legislature on the other side of the aisle.
But on the day after the primary, much was left to be decided Wednesday with numerous races too close to call. In the House of Delegates, Wayne County GOP incumbent Josh Booth was behind challenger Mark Ross by a single vote in a district serving Wayne County, and they were counting on provisional ballots to settle the race.
Booth was handpicked by Gov. Jim Justice a year ago to a House seat in place of Derrick Evans, who resigned after his arrest in January 2021 for participating in the riot at the U.S. Capitol, a month before the start of the legislative session. Evans pleaded guilty in March to his role in the riot and faces sentencing later this year.
In the Senate, Hunt won a three-candidate race Tuesday for the GOP nomination in a district spanning five counties. As a Democrat, Hunt served 14 years in the House of Delegates before losing in the 2016 general election for a U.S. House seat. He also lost a 2018 nonpartisan race for an unexpired term on the state Supreme Court.
Now as a Republican, Hunt defeated former Delegate Joshua Higginbotham and Mark Mitchem by a double-digit margin Tuesday. A fourth GOP candidate, Andrea Garrett Kiessling, was disqualified from running after a successful challenge to her residency. Kiessling had been promoted by West Virginia Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, who lives in another Senate district, as “the only true conservative” in the 8th District race.
Hunt advances to take on incumbent Democrat Richard Lindsay in November. Lindsay ran unopposed Tuesday.
Oliverio used the party-switch method to win his GOP Senate primary, too. The former Democratic senator from Morgantown easily defeated former FBI officer and analyst Carly Braun on Tuesday and will face Democratic Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer in the fall.
Oliverio spent 16 years in the state Senate after serving one term in the House. He won the 2010 Democratic nomination for U.S. House before losing to Republican David McKinley that fall.
In the Northern Panhandle, Owens Brown, a former president of the West Virginia NAACP who was the first Black man to serve in the Senate after his appointment by Justice last October, lost his Democratic primary to former Delegate Randy Schwartzmiller.
Raleigh County incumbent Rollan Roberts won his GOP primary against Delegate Mick Bates, a former Democrat. Other Senate GOP incumbents who advanced included Mike Azinger of Wood County, Majority Leader Tom Takubo of Kanawha County and Mark Maynard of Wayne County. Former U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart defeated Chad McCormick of Yawkey in the 7th District GOP primary.
Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin was unopposed in his Democratic primary and will meet another church pastor, Republican Vince Deeds, in November. Deeds defeated two others in his GOP primary in a five-county district in southern West Virginia.
All House candidates ran in single-member districts because of a 2018 restructuring. Previously, some districts had multiple delegates. Because of redistricting, some incumbent lawmakers faced off in the primary in their new districts. Republican George Miller of Morgan County ousted Ken Reed of Berkeley County, while Democrats Ric Griffith and Chad Lovejoy were locked in a tight race in their Huntington-area district.
In Kanawha County, incumbent Democrat Kayla Young and incumbent Republican Larry Pack easily won their respective primaries and will face each other in the fall.
Several other House GOP incumbents lost: Johnnie Wamsley of Mason County to former Delegate Jim Butler, Dianna Graves of Kanawha County to Nitro High School teacher Andy Shamblin, Danny Hamrick of Harrison County to ex-magistrate Keith Marple, and Guy Ward of Marion County to businessman Mike DeVault.
Among other GOP House races still undecided, Raleigh County incumbent Chris Toney led challenger Kase Poling by two dozen votes, Wood County incumbent Shannon Kimes was in second place in a three-way race, and less than a dozen votes separated challenger Bob Fehrenbacher in his race against Wood County incumbent Roger Conley.
Fehrenbacher admitted he was not a registered Republican when he filed his candidacy papers, calling it a simple oversight. He changed his registration to the GOP after the mistake was pointed out and ignored calls from the state Republican Party to discontinue his campaign.
Republicans outnumber Democrats 78-22 in the House, 23-11 in the state Senate and are looking to add to their supermajority this fall. Four senators, including three Democrats, did not seek reelection and eight others were unopposed in the primary. More than half of the House ran unopposed while 15 incumbents, including 10 Republicans, did not seek reelection.