Ferns’ party switch a gamble

Of the two significant changes House of Delegates member Ryan Ferns made this week, the one that received less publicity is the one most likely to affect his future in politics.

Ferns, who serves Ohio County, was elected twice as a Democrat. But on Monday, he revealed he had switched parties to become a Republican.

That’s big news, of course. It gives the GOP more strength in the House. The party now controls 47 seats, while Democrats maintain a majority with 53. Republican leaders hope that will change after the election next fall.

If so, it apparently will not be because of Ferns. He won’t be running for re-election to his Third Delegate District position. Also on Monday, he announced he plans to run for the state Senate, probably against Sen. Rocky Fitzsimmons, an Ohio County Democrat.

News reports about Ferns emphasized his party switch. Again, however, the state Senate announcement is very important.

Running for the Senate is a big risk for Ferns, even though Fitzsimmons is a freshman who was appointed, not elected, to the position. He became a senator in late December, replacing Orphy Klempa, who left the Senate to become an Ohio County commissioner.

Ferns probably could have stayed in the House of Delegates for a long time, because Ohio County, the Third District, is reasonably safe ground for him. He won re-election in 2012, even after an embarrassing DUI arrest.

But he didn’t prevail by much. Third District voters elected two delegates in 2012. Incumbent Delegate Erikka Storch, a Republican, led the pack with 10,705 votes. Ferns was second, with 7,431. That was only 280 more votes than another Democrat, Shawn Fluharty, received (Republican Larry Tighe ran a distant fourth, with 3,150 votes.)

The First District state Senate seat will be even tougher. The region includes all of Brooke, Hancock and Ohio counties, as well as a sliver of Marshall County. Brooke and Hancock counties traditionally have been unfriendly to Republicans. Last year, Jack Yost, the Democrat who holds the second Senate seat from the district, won reelection by demolishing GOP challenger Pat McGeehan, 22,661 to 16,858.

In 2010, when the district’s boundaries were slightly different, Klempa, a Democrat, overwhelmed Republican Charles Schlegel, 17,179 to 12,137.

Prevailing next year in the First District state Senate race will be an uphill battle for Ferns. He’ll be outside of his Ohio County comfort zone, contesting the election in a larger area with more committed Democrats.

President Barack Obama, perhaps the most disliked Democrat ever to appear on an election ballot in West Virginia, will not be much of a factor next fall. He won’t be on the ballot, for one thing.

On the other hand, more bad news about Obamacare will be hitting the headlines next fall, as millions of working men and women find out the law has killed their company-provided insurance. Perhaps Ferns can link Fitzsimmons to that.

Again, however, I don’t think voters are going to hold it against legislative candidates if they happen to be of the same party as the president.

That leaves Ferns, quite properly, with state government as a campaign talking point. Fortunately for him, that is fertile ground.

For one thing, lawmakers (including Ferns) are going to have a tough time balancing the budget next spring. More cuts in state spending – and possibly services to taxpayers-may be in the offing. The alternative is tax increases. If Ferns can isolate himself from issues unpopular with voters, he may be able to capitalize on that.

Also an issue may be waste of millions of dollars – and some outright violations of the law – through state technology initiatives. That will be an easy shot for Ferns to take.

Still, winning the First District Senate race won’t be easy. His opponent will be well funded and supported staunchly by Democrat leaders. For now, call the race a toss-up.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net