By Lawrence Messina
West Virginia should continue to offer public funds to its Supreme Court candidates, and make permanent a pilot program offering such alternative financing from last year’s race, the State Election Commission agreed Thursday.
Commission members cited the Nov. 6 victory of now-Justice Allen Loughry, the only one of eight candidates in a two-seat race who applied and qualified for money from the pilot program.
A longtime clerk at the court who first ran as an independent and later as a Republican, Loughry prevailed in the race along with incumbent Justice Robin Davis.
“I think it was a good program and I think it was successful, as far as it went,” Commissioner Gary Collias said.
But Collias also cited the legal challenges that erupted during Loughry’s campaign, which have since led Loughry to call for changes to the program if it continues.
The pilot offered an alternative to the traditional method of raising funds and contributing to campaigns, which some feared threatened to erode public confidence in the judiciary. The program provided funds for the primary and general elections. It also offered additional money known as “rescue” funds, meant to help participating candidates keep pace with opponents or outside groups.
But the commission deadlocked over releasing the matching funds to Loughry after a U.S. Supreme Court and subsequent federal rulings struck down a similar provision in an Arizona program.
Loughry petitioned the state Supreme Court, seeking the funds’ release. The court turned him down in September, agreeing with the nation’s highest court that rescue funds wrongly deterred would-be contributors to opposing candidates or groups. The September decision also allowed him to leave the pilot and raise regular campaign cash.
Loughry did not attend Thursday’s commission meeting, but told The Associated Press in December that officials must change what didn’t work while improving what did.
“A candidate who participates in a program like this must have confidence that it is going to provide them with sufficient resources to run a viable campaign,” he said.
Loughry, who did not face a contested GOP primary, received close to $400,000 from the pilot program. Commission members weighed whether to seek increased funding levels for future candidates, to offset the loss of rescue money and acknowledge the climbing cost of election campaigns.
Commissioner Robert Rupp questioned whether the program ought to be expanded, perhaps to include circuit-judge races and maybe even offices in the other branches of government. The commission ended up sticking with a request that the Legislature make the pilot permanent for Supreme Court candidates.
“I think we ought to ask for something at least achievable and manageable first, and then go from there if we can get that,” Collias said.
Loughry’s new party largely opposed the pilot’s creation in 2010. Five of seven Republican senators present voted against the legislation’s final version, as did 18 of 29 GOP delegates in the House.
A former Democratic Party chairman, Mike Callaghan, meanwhile argued that the prospect of Loughry receiving matching funds discouraged him from contributing to his party’s nominees. Callaghan filed a federal lawsuit, which was eclipsed by the state Supreme Court case.
The pilot tapped an account maintained by the state auditor’s office for its funding, and around $2.6 million remains. That money will return to the state’s general revenue fund when the budget year ends June 30, if the pilot expires without being renewed.