CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During a January appearance on MetroNews “Talkline,” Republican Senate candidate Tom Willis spoke about how being a political outsider would make him stand out in the primary field as well as against Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in a potential face-off
“I look at where we are in the rankings as a state with West Virginia and I look at what the career politicians are doing in D.C., and frankly I’m not satisfied with either and I don’t think our fellow West Virginians are either,” the National Guard major said on the Jan. 25 program.
More than two months later, Willis said momentum is on his side, pointing to the April 3 Republican candidate debate in Martinsburg in which U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship also participated.
“I do think as the voters of West Virginia were looking at the four of us on the stage and saying who is the most senatorial or who do I want to represent me as the next U.S. senator for West Virginia, I think that they were looking at Tom Willis,” he said in an interview last week.
Willis said he offers voters a candidate with solid conservative principals and diverse experience; in addition to his military service, the Hedgesville resident also is the co-owner of the Glen Ferris Inn in Fayette County and previously was a tax attorney in Washington, D.C. His resume has caught the attention of news outlets based outside of West Virginia, such as CNN and Fox Business Network.
“When news stations are looking for credible authorities to comment on whatever topic, really my resume fits any bill,” he said. “I’m an easy fit.”
During the debate, Willis said he was anti-abortion, against gun control policies and a proponent of stricter immigration policies, which he said last week Congress has failed to act upon.
“We didn’t fund the wall, we couldn’t come to a deal on the immigration debate and we still have weak enforcement laws. All of these send a signal that the border’s open,” he said.
The omnibus spending bill passed in March includes $1.5 billion for infrastructure on the U.S.-Mexico border, including physical barriers and “associated technology.” According to a memo from House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., the funding would cover construction for more than 90 miles of a border wall.
With Republicans passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in December, Willis said immigration and national security are the two issues President Donald Trump will likely make a top priority after the general election.
“It really helps to have a veteran voice to be heard on those issues because I’ve worked with U.S. Southern Command, I’ve worked in South America and I have years of professional experience in a military uniform fighting against terrorist organizations, drug organizations, terrorist crime organizations that were specifically targeting our country through the southern border,” he said.
According to the American Immigration Council, fewer than 5,000 people living in West Virginia illegally. The U.S. Census Bureau reports 1.6 percent of the state’s 1.8 million residents are immigrants.
“It’s an issue that’s obviously beyond our borders here in West Virginia,” Willis said. “We’re talking about a U.S. Senate seat, so we have to send people that see a bigger picture of not only what’s good for West Virginia but for our nation.”
With the May 8 primary approaching, Willis said he is confident in his chances, noting a growth in interest in his candidacy following the Martinsburg debate.
“As soon as people find out that I’m a veteran and that I’m a Senate candidate, we win by a two-to-one margin over the other candidates,” Willis said of his campaign’s internal poll numbers.
“West Virginia has the highest percentage of veterans in the country, but zero veterans in our U.S. congressional delegation. And that just doesn’t make sense, and I think West Virginians get that.”
The increase in attention also includes from non-Republicans; West Virginia Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore criticized Jenkins, Morrisey and Blankenship after the debate, but said Willis “seems like a very nice man.”
“Looking beyond (the primary), I think we need a candidate that can appeal to the broader spectrum of West Virginians as a whole because that’s what it’s going to take to beat Joe Manchin,” he said. “I think it’s further evidence that I’m the best choice.”