CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In a federal election cycle expected to be difficult for the national Republican Party, West Virginia conservatives have their sights on taking down the sole Democrat representing the Mountain State in the U.S. Congress: Sen. Joe Manchin.
Sabato’s Crystal Ball rated the state’s U.S. Senate race as “leans Democrat” in its Jan. 10 ratings, while the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections placed the contest in their “toss up” categories. Manchin won the seat in 2012 by 24 points, but West Virginia has moved further right since then, with the Republican Party controlling the executive and legislative branches in state government and President Donald Trump winning the state’s presidential contest in 2016 by largest margin in the West Virginia history.
Five candidates have already set their campaigns in motion: U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, former coal miner Bo Copley, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and business owner Tom Willis. While Monday marks a week since the start of the candidate filing period in West Virginia, the race for this seat began unofficially in May 2017 when Copley announced his candidacy on Facebook.
“It’s not something we’ve arrived at lightly, and it’s not something we will look at jokingly,” he said with his wife, Lauren, at his side. “It’s something I take very serious because I love my state, I love West Virginia and I love the future that I think that it has.”
Jenkins followed shortly after, and Morrisey launched his campaign in July. Blankenship filed a statement of candidacy with the Federal Elections Commission in December. Willis entered the race on Jan. 3 via a campaign video.
Coverage of the race has largely been focused on Jenkins and Morrisey. Jenkins — who was in the West Virginia Legislature until becoming the representative for the 3rd Congressional District in 2015 — paints himself as West Virginia’s native son, while Morrisey — who took office in 2013 — describes himself as the proven conservative.
“In our latest report, we’re showing we have an enormous amount of grassroots support, and I think that is going to make the difference. It’s people on the ground that care about this race,” Morrisey said following the Jan. 10 State of the State address in Charleston.
Jenkins, Morrisey and Copley attended Gov. Jim Justice’s speech before the West Virginia Legislature.
Jenkins argued he has been able to push for conservative policies while serving in the House of Representatives.
“What we need in West Virginia is a candidacy that I offer: somebody who has been for Donald Trump and with Donald Trump from day one, somebody who’s working in Washington each and every day, cutting taxes, bringing infrastructure funding to West Virginia, getting our country moving again,” he said.
Morrisey said his office’s accomplishments showcase his conservative values, including filing suit to block the Clean Power Plan from going into effect. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt signed a notice in October to propose repealing the Obama administration policy.
“There’s no other person on the ballot who has a record like that,” Morrisey said.
Morrisey’s attacks toward Jenkins have been centered on Jenkins’ past as a Democrat; he served in the state Legislature between January 1993 and July 2013 as a Democrat before changing his affiliation to the Republican Party to challenge then-U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Before serving public office, Jenkins was a registered Republican.
“He was identifying himself in the past as being way out on the left,” Morrisey said. “What I would ask is when did Evan Jenkins change his position from really being the liberal that supported John Kerry, going to a Hillary Clinton rally, Joe Manchin and all the really liberal Democrats?”
Jenkins described his political transformation as “the West Virginia story.”
“You know, Ronald Reagan at one point in his life was a registered Democrat. Donald Trump at one point in his life was a Democrat,” he said. “Well, Evan Jenkins has always been conservative.”
Jenkins’ campaign has gone after Morrisey for his political experience and ties to the pharmaceutical industry; Morrisey represented pharmaceutical companies as a lobbyist and has taken political contributions from individuals representing the industry.
“We know how devastating the pain pill crisis has been in West Virginia, so the choice is very clear between his candidacy and mine for the nomination for the Republican Party,” he said.
Jenkins signed a pledge in October he would return and refuse donations from the pharmaceutical industry, asking his fellow candidates to do the same.
Copley said he knows he’s the outsider in this race because of his lack of political experience, yet he added he believes that could help him win at least the May primary election.
“We don’t have the campaign funding that some of these guys do. I don’t have corporations throwing money at my campaign,” he said. “We’re going to go out and do everything that we can to meet as many people (as possible), shake hands, find out what people’s concerns are and what we can do to help.”
Copley gained national attention in May 2016 after challenging Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on comments she made about future of the coal industry.
“I’m the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country because we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business,” she said at a March 2016 CNN town hall. “We’re going to make it clear that we don’t want to forget those people.”
Copley was laid off from Arch Coal in September 2015 after 11 years with the company.
“I just want to know how you are going to say that you’re going to put a lot of coal miners out of jobs and then come in here and tell us how you’re going to be our friend because those people out there don’t see you as a friend,” Copley told Clinton, who apologized for her wording. Trump beat Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by more than 42 points in West Virginia.
Copley said he plans on visiting all 55 counties ahead of the May 8 primary.
“I know what it’s like to stretch that check to make all of your needs and I’m just able to relate to what we go through,” he said. “Most people want someone they can relate to that’s going to be the person calling the shots.”
Blankenship, who did not return a request for an interview, centered his campaign launch on targeting the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s investigation of the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion. His first advertisement accused the Obama administration of covering up the cause of the explosion that killed 29 miners, a claim that has earned Politifact’s “Pants on Fire” rating.
Blankenship served one year in prison following a guilty conviction for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. An August federal court filing stated Blankenship was living in Las Vegas under supervised release, which is set to conclude this May.
The Blankenship campaign is scheduled to host a town hall Thursday at the Chief Logan Lodge, Hotel and Conference Center in Logan. According to an event page, Blankenship will address the audience before an hour-long question-and-answer period.
Willis is on reserve status with the West Virginia Air National Guard and is co-owner of the Glen Ferris Inn hotel and restaurant in Fayette County.
“We keep sending the same politicians back to D.C. but what do we get? More excuses and promises, more inside deals and foot-dragging,” Willis said in his campaign launch video. “It’s clear it’s going to take someone from the outside to remind the politicians who they work for.”
The Willis campaign did not respond to a request for an interview.
A factor in which candidate will win the primary is how closely they align themselves with Trump. While his national approval rating has been below 40 percent for much of his first year in office, Trump remains popular in West Virginia; Morning Consult reported in October 59.5 percent of West Virginians are in favor of the president’s performance in office.
“I supported Donald Trump from before the primary in West Virginia in May. I’ve supported Donald Trump every step of the way,” Jenkins said, adding Morrisey did not declare support Trump going into the Republican National Convention. Morrisey did vote for Trump at the convention in Cleveland, and later said he voted for Trump in the 2016 primary and general elections.
Jenkins also went after Morrisey for his connection to Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and recent executive chairman of Breitbart News. Bannon backed Morrisey during a Sept. 28 appearance on Breitbart News Daily.
Bannon was critical of Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Trump campaign officials in “Fire and Fury,” a book detailing the first year of the Trump presidency.
“He has signed his allegiance to Steve Bannon,” Jenkins said of Morrisey. “I have called on Patrick Morrisey to rescind his support and his endorsement from Steve Bannon.”
Morrisey said he disagreed with Bannon’s statement, going as far as calling the remarks “deplorable.” He did not say if he rejected Bannon’s support.
“We’ve been endorsed by many, many people. I choose President Trump,” he said.
After Trump referred to Haiti and African nations as “shithole” countries last week, Jenkins stood by the president’s denial of the language reported.
“President Trump has denied saying anything derogatory toward Haitians and reiterated his commitment to our relationship with Haiti; I take him at his word,” he said in a statement. “Though what was said is in dispute, I continue to share President Trump’s long-stated goal of ensuring that our immigration system aligns with the economic and security interests of the United States.”
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Trump made the remarks during a bipartisan meeting at the White House regarding immigration. Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said on ABC This Week the president did not use “shithole,” while Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said he did not hear the president say the word.
The Morrisey campaign did not return a request for comment.
Copley said there will be plenty of things people will remember about the Trump presidency, but those against his agenda will think about moments like this before any achievements.
“I think most people understand that the conditions of countries that people are fleeing to come to the United States are not the best,” he said. “There are going to be some people that will say he’s being ‘real,’ but I will continue to say there’s a level of tact and diplomacy that should come with that office.”
Copley added since he was not in the room at the time, he cannot trust the context in which the word was used.
The primary election is scheduled for May 8. The winners of the Republican and Democratic primaries will face off in the general election, which will be held Nov. 6.