All last fall, televised political attack ads reverberated among the hills and hollers of West Virginia. It was part of a bitter fight between the two parties, and Republicans managed to ride to victory on a national wave of disapproval with politics in Washington D.C.
The results were seen as a Republican revolution, and Democrats lost control of the state Legislature for the first time in eight decades. But in the Mountain State, there was another story underneath it all.
The state was awash in new political spending, after the secretary of state decided it could no longer enforce the existing limits on contributions to independent political groups. The move came as part of a settlement in a lawsuit that had been filed in federal court arguing that the limits were unconstitutional.
“To continue to press what is an unwinnable position,” Secretary of State Natalie Tennant said in a statement at the time, “will do nothing but run up the tab for which the state will be responsible.”
As it turned out, the Republican victory came in spite of the spending, not because of it — Democrats outspent Republicans nearly two-to-one in the state’s legislative races. But Tennant’s decision unleashed a torrent of spending that transformed the state’s politics and undermined what had been relatively muscular campaign finance laws.
This new reality, combined with the state’s weak open record laws, has resulted in West Virginia earning an overall grade of D, ranking the state 17th out of 50 in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government accountability and transparency by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
That represents little change from 2012, the first time the project was conducted, when the Mountain State earned a D+. The two scores are not directly comparable, however, due to changes made to improve and update the project and its methodology, such as eliminating the category for redistricting, a process that generally occurs only once every 10 years. The highest grade, a C, went to Alaska, while California and Connecticut each received a C-; the other 47 states received D’s and F’s.