WHEELING, W.Va. — The six Republican candidates for U.S. Senate faced off in a debate Monday in Wheeling, the first time all the candidates shared the stage.
The debate was held 15 days before the primary election and two days before early voting begins statewide.
U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, National Guard Maj. Tom Willis, former coal miner Bo Copley and U.S. Navy veteran Jack Newbrough participated in the debate at Wheeling Jesuit University’s Troy Theater, in which they answered questions on the national debt, social programs, gun policy, President Donald Trump and the opioid crisis.
The Intelligencer and the Wheeling Register-Herald hosted the debate.
The candidates provided few points of disagreement; all spoke in favor of limiting government spending, protecting programs such as Social Security, the Second Amendment and Trump’s agenda.
Where things differed was in regards to approaches to the opioid crisis. Willis, who also is co-owner of the Glen Ferris Inn in Fayette County, called the epidemic “an economic security issue” and a “national security issue.”
“I’m a big fan of alternative sentencing. The goal is to get someone from this addiction back into productive taxpayer status,” he said. “I think we need to look at the root cause of this, though, which is the hopelessness and the purposelessness that drives people into this addiction.”
Blankenship said he supports drug testing public officials and going after doctors who are overprescribing opioid medications.
“We have to make sure drug makers and drug distributors are being reasonable,” he said. “We require that cigarette companies put a warning on a pack of cigarettes or that beer companies advertise not to drive drunk and to have a designated driver. We need far more serious warnings for when someone picks up an opioid drug prescription.”
Blankenship also said the solution to the opioid crisis involves building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and preventing cities from limiting sanctuary cities.
Copley said pressure has to put on pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists, as well as doctors. He also said there are issues with how medications are advertised.
Jenkins said the opioid crisis is correlated with the lack of job opportunities.
“The Obama administration sucked the economic life out of our state, put people on the unemployment life, caused people to lose their homes and their cars,” he said of the downturn of coal economy. “It was outrageous.”
Jenkins also agreed with Copley’s point regarding the influence of the pharmaceutical industry, noting his own “People Over Pills” campaign pledge, in which he has refused to accept donations from pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists.
“What we need to do is take Big Pharma, take the drug industry’s money out of politics, out of this election,” he said.
Morrisey touted his office’s record on addressing the misuse of opioids, including his lawsuit against the Drug Enforcement Administration for its drug quota system. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last week new rules regarding the manufacturing of opioid medication.
“Fighting opioid abuse is the challenge of our time. And since taking office in 2013, there’s been no one more aggressive going after this absolute senseless death in our state,” he said.
Newbrough, who is also a truck driver, said this was a personal issue for him.
“My son’s mother lost her life to opioid addiction 10 years ago,” he said.
Newbrough later said he would like to take drug dealers “out back and waterboard them.”
“That might not be the right thing to say, but I think that’s a start in the direction to get it taken care of,” he said.
The candidates were also asked what moderator Mike Myer described as “elephant in the room questions” regarding the candidates’ background.
For Blankenship, the question was in regards to the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, in which 29 coal miners died. Blankenship said the explosion was because of a lack of airflow and presence of natural gas.
“The UBB tragedy and the aftermath, I think, is actually going to help me in this election in the coalfields because coal miners know what really happened,” he said.
Blankenship also said he would act to prevent a similar explosion from happening by dividing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration into two agencies to handle inspections and investigations, increasing monitoring technology and an arbitrator for disagreements between mine managers and government officials.
Jenkins was asked about his previous political experience as a Democrat; as a state senator, Jenkins was a Democrat before changing his party affiliation to Republican in July 2013. He said his political change is the “West Virginia story.”
“I’m an unapologetic supporter of Donald Trump,” he said.
Jenkins also went after the Duty and Country super PAC for attacking his record during his time leading the West Virginia State Medical Association; Duty and Country has spent more than $682,000 on advertisements and mailers against Jenkins and Morrisey, with most of the efforts targeting Jenkins.
Jenkins said the super PAC is being supported by organizations tied to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“It’s when the Democrats are trying to beat you in a primary, that ought to tell you something,” he said.
Morrisey addressed criticisms regarding his previous lobbying experience in which his group was associated with Cardinal Health.
“I think it’s very critical to look at the record,” he said. “As your state attorney general, no one has been more aggressive going after the opioid epidemic.”
Copley, Newbrough and Willis were asked similar questions about their lack of political office experience. Copley said Trump is evidence that political experience is not a requirement to be a lawmaker.
“I think that speaks volumes that people are tired of having career politicians move into these positions and make decisions for us,” Copley said. “They want people who are going to try something different.”
Newbrough said it all comes down to “common sense.”
“Everybody in this room knows the problems we have in the state of West Virginia,” he said. “Me being a truck driver, I see all the issues that go on everywhere in this country — whether it be illegal immigration, the infrastructure (plan) the president wants to push — and it’s exactly the reason why President Trump was elected to office.”
Willis said his lack of political experience is different than that of Copley and Newbrough because of his National Guard, business and law experiences.
“I have the strongest and the most well-rounded resume of any of the candidates on the table,” he said.
Television station WSAZ will host a debate Tuesday between Jenkins, Morrisey and Blankenship. Fox News announced last week a debate for May 1 in Morgantown. Candidates who receive at least 10 percent in a related poll will be invited to participate.
Early voting in the primary election begins Wednesday. Election day is May 8, in which the winner of this primary will face U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., or Paula Jean Swearengin in the general election.