Republican Patrick Morrisey is using his personal wealth to skirt campaign donation limits, allowing a coal company and interest groups to inject extra cash into his West Virginia Senate bid.
The state attorney general, who made his name suing EPA to block the Clean Power Plan, has lent his campaign $398,000 since he began vying to unseat Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — one of the GOP's top targets in 2018 — federal filings show.
Morrisey took on most of that debt during the Republican primary to fend off Rep. Evan Jenkins and former coal magnate Don Blankenship.
Donors — some already having donated as much as federal law allows — are now helping Morrisey pay off the loans.
Soliciting debt retirement money is a campaign tactic, according to a Morrisey fundraising email obtained by E&E News.
The message is an invitation to a June 20 fundraiser — six weeks after the May 8 primary.
"Your contribution (up to $2,700) will be designated for the primary election debt retirement," the email states. "The next $2,700 will be designated for the general election."
Under federal law, individuals can donate a maximum of $5,400 to a single candidate during a campaign cycle: $2,700 during the primary and $2,700 during the general election. Debt retirement contributions allow donors who skipped the primary to give the full amount.
"Since Morrisey loaned his campaign money during the primary, he can still ask donors for $5,400 — half to pay off his debt from the primary, half for the general election," Andrew Mayersohn, political action committee researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said in an email. "It's a clever way of giving his campaign more time to solicit the biggest possible contributions while abiding by the FEC's rules."
Morrisey's most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission shows $148,000 in debt retirement payments, or contributions made to the campaign in order to pay back the candidate himself.
All the debt retirement donations were made in June, after Morrisey won the primary.
"Some Republican donors may have been putting off making donations until the party's nominee was decided," Mayersohn said. "This way, those donors can still give $5,400 to Morrisey, just as if they had given before the primary took place."
Take coal titan and longtime GOP megadonor Joe Craft. The Alliance Resource Partners LP CEO did not wade into a primary battle between two champions of his industry, but after Morrisey bested Jenkins, Craft still gave Morrisey $5,400 — the $2,700 maximum for the general election and $2,700 in debt retirement, applied retroactively to the primary.
Craft's company PAC and its employees gave Morrisey $49,150 between May and June 30. Of that, $39,200 was for debt retirement — more than 25 percent of all loan repayments.
Another half of all payments on Morrisey's debt came from conservative PACs, like the National Rifle Association, as well as many linked to top GOP senators, including Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe and South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
The debt arrangement mirrors that of another Republican Senate nominee taking on a Democrat in a state won by President Trump in 2016.
Challenging Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D), Matt Rosendale has used $67,831 to pay off personal loans dating back to his previous failed bid for Congress in 2014.
Rosendale has gone a step further. According to FEC filings, he received $32,831 in debt repayments between January and April, then lent his Senate campaign committee that exact same amount (E&E Daily, July 27). Rosendale received another $35,000 in debt payments between April and July but did not take out any more loans.
From the first debt retirement contributions until June 30, Morrisey did not lend his campaign any money, according to his filings.
Still, the strategies are a way around campaign finance law made possible by the ability of two wealthy men to take on debt.
Morrisey has employed this tactic before. During his 2014 run to become West Virginia attorney general, he held a series of "debt retirement" events, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported in 2015.
During the current federal election cycle, Morrisey still has $250,000 in loans to pay off. The campaign did not reply to a request for comment.
Morrisey beats Manchin in energy cash
Overall, Manchin still managed to raise more money, but Morrisey outpaced the pro-coal Democrat in donations from the energy sector since April.
Coal, oil, gas and chemical companies gave Morrisey $128,450, compared with $54,850 sent to Manchin. Morrisey's filings show donations from a cadre of heavyweight energy executives whose fingerprints appear on prominent GOP Senate campaigns across the country.
Craft and his company have led the charge for Morrisey since the primary. Nationwide, Alliance Resource Partners has been the mining industry's top spender during this midterm election cycle, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The PAC for Koch Industries Inc. — the energy company of conservative power brokers Charles and David Koch — donated to Morrissey. Larry Nichols, co-founder of natural gas giant Devon Energy Corp., has gotten behind the attorney general along with Continental Resources Inc. Chairman and CEO Harold Hamm and his oil company's PAC.
Hamm, a hydraulic fracturing pioneer, is an influential backer of North Dakota Republican Rep. Kevin Cramer's Senate bid (E&E Daily, June 26).
Craft, Cramer, Nichols and Hamm headlined a private fundraiser in Oklahoma City for Florida Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott last month, as first reported by E&E News (E&E News PM, July 13).
Morrisey also received support from Jennmar Corp. President Frank Calandra Jr., and five members of his family gave the maximum toward debt retirement. The Pennsylvania mining supply company recently emerged as a major donor to Sen. Dean Heller as the Nevada Republican is in a tight race to hold his seat (E&E Daily, Aug. 2).
Manchin, meanwhile, took in nearly $50,000 from energy PACs. Oil companies on the list include Exxon Mobil Corp., ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66. The National Association of Chemical Distributors, the American Gas Association, utility Pacific Gas and Electric Co., and coal producer Drummond Co. Inc. also chipped in to Manchin's campaign.
Overall, Manchin goes into the current contribution reporting period ending Sept. 30 with far more money left to spend. Manchin has $6.3 million on hand to Morrisey's $894,494.