CHARLESTON, W.Va. — For the first time in this year’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, all six candidates will face off against each other in a debate Monday at Wheeling Jesuit University.
The debate — hosted by the Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register — will begin at 6:30 at the institution’s Troy Theater. West Virginia Public Broadcasting will air the debate live on its stations as well as on its website.
This is the only debate scheduled to include all six Republican candidates, U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, Tom Willis, Bo Copley and Jack Newbrough.
Television station WSAZ will host a debate Tuesday with Jenkins, Morrisey and Blankenship, which will air at 4 p.m.
Fox News announced last week it will host a May 1 debate in Morgantown, in which candidates who receive at least 10 percent in a related poll will be invited to participate. The poll is expected to be released this week.
The debate comes amid growing pressure on Jenkins, Morrisey and Blankenship; Super PAC Duty and Country launched advertisements last week aimed against Jenkins and Morrisey. One advertisement says during Jenkins’ time leading the West Virginia State Medical Association, he pushed for doctors to use an insurance company that overcharged for services. A second advertisement goes after Morrisey for being “a millionaire New Yorker and former lobbyist who came down here to run for office with no idea about the real challenges West Virginians face.”
Booth Goodwin, who served as U.S. attorney during the federal trial against Blankenship, is listed as Duty and Country’s treasurer.
Mountain Families PAC has spent $743,858.12 on advertisements against Blankenship using Massey Energy’s environmental record, specifically a lawsuit claiming a Massey Energy subsidiary pumped 1 .4 billion gallons of coal slurry into underground mines. The suit was settled in 2011 for $35 million in damages and $5 million to monitor the health of residents.
“Isn’t there enough toxic sludge in Washington?” the advertisement ends.
Mountain Families PAC treasurer Benjamin Ottenhoff previously worked for the Republican National Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee.
Attorneys with Blankenship filed a motion last week to vacate his misdemeanor conviction related to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, in which 29 miners died. Blankenship served a year in prison for conspiring to violate federal mine safety standards. He maintains the related investigation was a government coverup for practices of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
One person who is staying out of the primary is U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va. McKinley said on Friday’s MetroNews “Talkline” he told Jenkins, Morrisey and Blankenship he does not want to be involved.
“This is one that I think they each have to make their pitch,” he said. “Whoever comes out of it, we’ll see what happens when we go to the fall. But I think we have to be careful. Let the individuals decide.”
When pressed about Blankenship’s candidacy, McKinley said there are concerns about what would happen if the former coal executive won the primary.
“I think a lot of things would complicate the issue if he were to be the candidate,” he said.
“I’m going to support our efforts to make sure we maintain the Senate majority,” he added.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., is also staying out of the primary.
“It’s tightening up, by all indications. And I think that’s going to heighten the interest of a lot of Republican and independent voters in the state and I think that’s a good thing,” she told POLITICO.
National Republicans also have concerns about a possible Blankenship win, with Senate Republican leaders worried about the difficulties of defending Blankenship’s past during the general election.
“I still think in the end people are discerning enough that they’ll figure this out. Obviously we’ll want to have a good candidate out there that will run a good race in the fall,” South Dakota Sen. John Thune told POLITICO.
All six Republicans have their sights on challenging Sen. Joe Manchin in the fall. Manchin, who is facing activist Paula Jean Swearengin in the Democratic primary, released his first advertisement of the campaign last week, which starts with him visiting the memorial honoring the victims of the 1968 Farmington mine disaster.
“In the Farmington No. 9 mine explosion, I lost an uncle, I lost a neighbor, I lost guys I play ball with. This is real for me,” Manchin said.
“People here have been screwed by both political parties,” he also said. “Yes, Washington sucks, but West Virginians don’t give up. And I will never give up trying to make it better.”
Early voting begins Wednesday across the state and continues through May 5. Election day is May 8.