CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A father who once made a desperate attempt to clone his deceased son is giving West Virginia Democrats their best shot at reclaiming a seat in Congress.
In a presidential election year woefully short on civility, the cloning attempt 17 years ago hasn't been used against Mark Hunt once in the contest.
Hunt only talks about it when asked, but he's not ashamed to tell the story.
Hunt's baby boy still beams a smile down over his dad from a framed picture in his office in the law firm he's run for 22 years. Andrew died at 10 months old, and would have been 18 years old in October.
"That's that child right there, with those blue eyes that you could look in and see eternity," Hunt said.
Hunt said Republican Rep. Alex Mooney won't revisit the issue because polls show people will sympathize with him as a grieving parent. Mooney said he doesn't think cloning is right, but he doesn't plan to bring the issue up in the race for the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches across the middle of the state, through Charleston and the Eastern Panhandle's Washington suburbs.
Hunt, who served 14 years in the House of Delegates, pointed out that he was elected multiple times after the cloning episode. It's gut-wrenching every time the topic comes up, Hunt said.
"My son died. We would've done anything to save him. We would've done anything to create a twin of him, if it were possible. We tried," Hunt said. "We broke no laws. We spent our money. And maybe we were taken advantage of by people. But finally we had to let him go."
After Andrew died from complications after surgery to correct heart defects in 1999, Hunt and his wife, Tracy, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to quietly set up a laboratory inside a Nitro, West Virginia community center, and hired Brigitte Boisselier, the chief executive of Clonaid, to clone their son's DNA.
The lab never came close to actually cloning a human. Hunt shut it down within months under pressure from the Food and Drug Administration, and cut ties with the founders of Clonaid, who also promoted what they called the Raelian Movement and claimed extraterrestrial scientists created life on Earth. For scientific, ethical, and commercial reasons, no reputable experts have tried to clone a complete human since.
Outside the Legislature, Hunt has become wealthy suing drug and insurance companies over faulty product claims, and he and his wife are raising two other sons.
This election contest instead has focused on issues more relevant to the duties of a congressman. Hunt is painting Mooney as missing-in-action, particularly for taking a trip to Egypt and Jordan in June while floods ravaged the state and killed 23 people.
Mooney said he was visiting the troops, and cut that trip short to return home for the floods. "I left on the Friday, the same day unfortunately the floods started, and I made the decision to keep my commitment," he said.
Mooney is running on his record of trying to limit the Environmental Protection Agency's power, promote gun rights and oppose abortion. Hunt says jobs are his primary goal; he promises to secure federal infrastructure funding and draw businesses and tourism to West Virginia.
Mooney rode into office on a wave of GOP support in 2014, when longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall lost in another district and the state Legislature flipped to Republican control for the first time in more than eight decades. Sen. Joe Manchin is now the only Democrat left in West Virginia's five-member congressional delegation.
Hunt topped a crowded field in the Democratic primary, has put $270,300 of his own money into the campaign, and expects to have contributed $500,000 by Election Day. Mooney had spent $762,400 through late October, about double Hunt's spending.
Mooney has cast his lot with Donald Trump, popular in West Virginia for making broad-stroke promises to put coal miners back to work. His yard signs call for a Trump-Mooney ticket.
Hunt called Trump and Hillary Clinton "thorny choices." Like many West Virginia Democrats plagued by their nominee's unpopularity in the state, Hunt is publicly neutral in the presidential race.
Even with Trump atop the ballot, Hunt sees an opportunity after the GOP-led Legislature in 2015 eliminated straight-party voting, where clicking one box picks all candidates from one party. The option heavily favored Republicans in 2014 after it largely only aided Democrats in previous elections.
"That was one of their promises to the electorate, that they would change straight-line voting," Hunt said. "By George, they did it, to their detriment, I think."
Hunt is dogging Mooney for seeking office quickly after moving into the state from Maryland, where he was a state lawmaker and GOP chairman. Issues like that are relevant — not the cloning story, he said.
Mooney "doesn't have the guts" to revisit it, Hunt said. "It would backfire on him so badly, it's unbelievable."