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Primary election potpourri

CHARLESTON — Here we are, eight days out from the June 9 primary election and it’s crunch time for statewide candidates still trying to still influence voters who are marking absentee ballots, taking part in early voting or waiting to vote a week from Tuesday.

I traditionally vote on the first day of early voting at the Kanawha County Clerk’s Office. I had my mask on, a pocket-size bottle of hand sanitizer and a smile on my face. The staff and paid volunteers also were in good spirits and in masks.

My experience was pleasant. I was handed my requested ballot and a pen to use as my finger. I made my choices on the touchscreen, printed my ballot and watched the poll workers insert it in the machine.

My one concern was the age of most of the poll workers, which appeared to be north of 60. I know the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office has a program to help county clerks recruit poll workers who are not in the high-risk category for the coronavirus, which are typically younger people.

While I appreciate the sense of duty of these poll workers, most of whom have been poll workers for decades, I do worry about them. So if you’re voting in person, don’t be a jerk and think you’re too good for a mask. If you’re ever going to wear a mask, your polling place is a must.

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I don’t make predictions or handicap races, at least not in print. The race for West Virginia governor is obviously where most eyeballs will be when polls close June 9. Both the Republican and Democratic primaries have packed slates of candidates.

Again, I’m not going to say who I think will win or who has the best chance, but there are factors voters will need to consider. On the Republican side, Justice will likely be judged on one metric: how he has handled the coronavirus pandemic in West Virginia.

Justice’s record, for good or bad, over the last three years is practically a blur in the rear-view mirror. His business record and his many lawsuits have been written about at length (including by me), though these were well known in 2016 when Justice clinched the governor’s race as a Democrat. Those didn’t sink him then and I don’t expect they will sink him now.

Whether it’s fair or not fair, many voters will judge Justice based on his performance since the first week of March when Justice first declared a state of preparedness at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis – nearly two weeks before the state saw its first positive case on March 17.

The polling appears to bear this out, with a WMOV/Triton poll showing Justice with 53 percent support compared to former delegate Mike Folk at 15 percent and former Commerce Department secretary Woody Thrasher at 13 percent. While it’s been harder for Thrasher and Folk to campaign, Justice has been on our computers and TVs nearly every Monday through Friday since March 11.

Thrasher has tried to compete by spending large amounts of money on TV ads, including hitting Justice with negative ads and mailers. Folk has sent letters to media outlets asking for his own equal time though it’s a bit too late for that. It would take days to catch up to the free media Justice has received.

It might be unfair, but it’s good to be an incumbent and it’s particularly good to be an incumbent during an emergency.

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In the Democratic primary for governor, I feel like the race is divided into three factions: the faction led by U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the progressive faction personified by community organizer Stephen Smith and those caught in between.

There’s been a battle for a long time within the state Democratic Party, with those wishing to maintain the course and example set by Manchin: the so-called West Virginia Democrat that sticks with labor unions but is otherwise a centrist party. Or those who see the national Democratic Party’s tilt to the progressive left and wish to be part of that movement.

The polling (which doesn’t have the same low margin of error or the number of people polled as the Republican primary poll) shows a tight race between Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, who has several Manchin machine people in his corner, and Stephen Smith, who has been organizing progressive Democrats and others in a movement. Both have money, both have loyal supporters, both have union support (Salango has the endorsements, but Smith has many union members) and both are young men.

That leaves state Sen. Ron Stollings, the Boone County doctor, in the middle, trying to peel off supporters of both Salango and Smith and find a middle path between them.

Again, it might not be fair, but it’s hard to fight against established machines. Smith built his machine over a period of nearly two years. Salango has tapped into the Manchin machine, which has proven effective over the years.

Voters still have time to take a look at all of these candidates and decide who can best lead the state past 2020.

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