West Virginia Senate primary off to raucous start

West Virginia Senate primary off to raucous start
© Greg Nash/Wikimedia Commons

The Republican Senate primary in West Virginia is heating up, with the two leading candidates working to show that they are the most conservative, President Trump-supporting choice.

Patrick Morrisey, the state’s attorney general, is battling with Rep. Evan Jenkins for the chance to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinThe Memo: Kavanaugh firestorm consumes political world Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Kavanaugh, accuser to testify publicly on Monday MORE in next year’s election. 

Even before Jenkins launched his campaign in May and Morrisey launched his last month, the Republicans sparred on a nearly daily basis over who is more closely aligned with Trump, who has the stronger conservative credentials and who can boost the fortune’s of West Virginia’s coal-centric economy. 

The crossfire has only escalated in recent weeks, fueled in part by Trump’s visits to the state and action in Congress and the courts on coal and other important local issues.

“President Trump is still pretty wildly popular in West Virginia, and I don’t see anything on the horizon that’s going to dent that or create a drag on his favorability on West Virginia,” said Mark Blankenship, a Republican consultant in the state. 

“The coattail effect is real and it’s as old as politics itself, so I think both of them are going to be jousting and trying to position themselves as the Trump candidate.” 

The very presence of a highly competitive GOP primary with highly qualified candidates is new to the Mountain State, Blankenship noted. 

For decades, Democrats dominated the state. Morrisey, for example, in 2013 became the first Republican to be the state’s top attorney since the 1930s. 

But West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia have turned sharply toward the Republican Party in recent years.

Trump beat Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillary Clinton: FBI investigation into Kavanaugh could be done quickly Hillary Clinton urges Americans to 'check and reject' Trump's 'authoritarian tendencies' by voting in midterms EXCLUSIVE: Trump says exposing ‘corrupt’ FBI probe could be ‘crowning achievement’ of presidency MORE there last year by 42.2 percentage points, the highest of any state. And while Trump’s approval rating nationally has dropped to the high-30s, in West Virginia it is at 60 percent according to Gallup, again the highest in the country.

Despite that, Manchin, who supported Clinton, is still popular in the state, and election watchers like Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia say they expect him to win reelection, albeit it narrowly. 

Still, the GOP will put up a tough fight.

“Both of these candidates are smart guys, they’re politically shrewd and they have good political teams,” Blankenship said.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) hasn’t gotten involved in the primary battle, but said it is confident that the winner will beat Manchin. 

“Joe Manchin has looked out for one person during his time in Washington — himself — and West Virginians have taken notice,” said NRSC spokesman Bob Salera. “Voters will hold Manchin accountable in 2018 and elect a strong Republican who will uphold West Virginia values in the Senate.”

Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoThis week: Democrats pledge ‘sparks’ in Kavanaugh hearing Congress faces September scramble on spending California passes bill to ban controversial drift net fishing MORE, West Virginia’s junior senator and a Republican, also hasn’t made an endorsement. 

That’s left the two candidates to battle it out on their own — and they are off to a fast start. 

Jenkins’ campaign released a short advertisement this week stating that Morrisey, a delegate to the 2016 GOP convention, didn’t support Trump until shortly before the convention, when he was already the presumptive nominee. 

“For months, Patrick Morrisey was #NeverTrump ... and now he's lying about it,” the video says. 

Morrisey’s campaign has shot back with its own challenges to Jenkins’ pro-Trump bona fides.

“This is laughable coming from Evan Jenkins, a former liberal Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton, cap-and-trade, ObamaCare, taxpayer-funded abortions and gun control,” said Nachama Soloveichik, Morrisey’s spokeswoman. 

"In contrast, Patrick Morrisey is a conservative Republican who has gone to court to defeat Obama’s agenda and to support President Trump. Most recently, Morrisey worked with President Trump to stop Obama’s Clean Power Plan and the waters of U.S. rule.”

Jenkins, a former state lawmaker, was a Democrat before announcing his House run in 2013, but his campaign disputes many of his opponent’s characterizations. 

Morrisey has tried to frame Jenkins as a Clinton supporter, pointing to a Clinton campaign event Jenkins attended in 2007. The Jenkins campaign said it wasn’t the campaign rally Morrisey claimed it was, adding that he never supported Clinton nor voted for her. 

Morrisey has been highlighting his work as attorney general, including his fight against Obama administration actions like environmental regulations, but he’s also worked to fight the opioid epidemic, government fraud and worked for gun reciprocity across state lines. 

“It’s sad to see Rep. Evan Jenkins feeling so desperate that he has to resort to lies and mud-throwing,” Soloveichik said. “Perhaps he’s feeling desperate because so many West Virginia officials have endorsed Patrick Morrisey as the true conservative in this race.”

Jenkins’s campaign has been working to paint Morrisey as a Washington, D.C., insider who cares more about his career than the state he’s looking to represent. 

Morrisey hails from New Jersey, where he ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2000. He previously worked for major law and lobby firms like Arent Fox and Sidley Austin.

“As a card-carrying member of the D.C. cocktail circuit and a longtime lobbyist for liberal interests, Patrick Morrisey played footsie with the #NeverTrumpers and refused to back Trump until well into the general election — thereby helping Hillary Clinton,” said Andy Seré, Jenkins’s strategist.

“This is the same Pat Morrisey who asked Jenkins to join his transition team in 2012, and praised Evan as a man of ‘principles’ on the very day he became a Republican four years ago,” he said. “But now that Evan’s blocking his path back to the D.C. swamp that made him rich, Morrisey has sunk to the depths of dishonesty.”

The “cap-and-trade” attacks stem from a pair of bills Jenkins supported while a state lawmaker: one to create a market system to reduce pollution and one to create a clean energy mandate for state utilities. The latter bill passed, but was repealed, and didn’t create a “cap” for pollution.

Amid the accusations, both candidates have been appearing with Trump as often as possible at signing ceremonies and elsewhere. 

When the president visited West Virginia last month for a Boy Scouts of America event, Morrisey greeted him on the tarmac when his plane landed, while Jenkins flew back to D.C. with him on Air Force One. Both candidates plan on attending a campaign rally Trump is planning in Huntington, W.Va., Thursday. 

Morrisey and Jenkins have a long time to fight it out, with the primary contest set for May 2018, eight months away. 

Jenkins has raised $680,000 so far this year, although much of that time he was technically running for House reelection, Federal Election Commission records show. Morrisey has not had to file a finance report yet.

The GOP field might continue to grow.

Don Blankenship, the former CEO of Massey Energy Co. who spent a year in prison for charges stemming from a coal mining disaster that killed 29 workers in 2010, said on a radio show that it is “a possibility” he could run. 

He is still angry at Manchin, who was governor at the time of the 2010 disaster, for blaming him for his role in the deaths. 

And John Raese, an unsuccessful candidate in 2010 and 2012 and former state GOP chairman, told MetroNews, “I never say never.” 

— Ben Kamisar contributed.