MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The three leading Republican candidates for U.S. Senate faced off Tuesday in a nationally-televised debate, and there was not a lack of disagreement for the hour they were on stage.
U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins and state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey spent much of the evening attacking each other, while former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship used his time to reiterate arguments against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and in favor of his conservative work.
Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum asked the candidates about their platforms and why they feel they are the best suited to challenge Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in November.
Here are the takeaways from Tuesday’s debate:
1. Jenkins v. Morrisey
Jenkins and Morrisey have been attacking each other since last summer when the two announced they were running for the GOP nomination. The two — who were at the top of last week’s Fox News poll — used most of Tuesday’s debate at the Metropolitan Theatre to do the same.
Morrisey, touting himself as the “one proven conservative fighter in this race,” went after Jenkins’ past as a Democrat, in which he left the party ahead of the 2014 midterm election.
“If you look at the congressman, he’s actually been very liberal,” Morrisey said. “If you go ‘Obamacare,’ checkbox. He supported it. Hillary (Clinton)? He went and rallied for Hillary. Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, Planned Parenthood spending just a couple weeks ago … Evan, you should be ashamed of yourself for that outrageous vote killing the unborn.”
Morrisey was referencing the omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in March, which Jenkins supported. The spending bill allows the funding of grants for Planned Parenthood.
Jenkins said the spending bill does not fund Planned Parenthood, adding he is working with President Donald Trump to push the president’s agenda.
“You know, Barack Obama devastated our state and our country,” he said. “He put literally thousands of coal miners out of work. Look at the Democratic platform. Supports abortion on demand. Gun grabbers limiting our Second Amendment.”
Jenkins attacked Morrisey for his 2000 run for Congress in a New Jersey congressional district, as well as Morrisey’s ties with pharmaceutical companies including his wife’s lobbying work.
“Cardinal Health. Cardinal — it’s not our state bird — it’s the pusher of all these pills,” Jenkins said. “He and his family lobbying firm have made millions and millions in his 18 years as a D.C. lobbyist and Hill staffer.”
Morrisey responded by saying Jenkins was making false statements.
“Did your mom ever tell you that we should wash your mouth out with soap with those lies?” he asked Jenkins, resulting in applause.
2. Blankenship attacks with minimum scratches
Blankenship spent a fair amount of the debate waiting to be asked a question, but he did give responses that caught the audience’s attention.
When Baier asked Blankenship about his residency in Nevada, the former coal executive said he “probably pays more taxes” to West Virginia compared to Jenkins and Morrisey, triggering applause.
“If it weren’t for me, neither of these two guys would be up here,” he said. “It’s funny that Pat says he’s the only conservative on the stage. Conservatives weren’t even popular in West Virginia until I caused them to be conservative by investing $5 million of my own money.”
Blankenship added his “voting record” is donations he made to conservative causes, such as anti-abortion efforts.
“Those type of sacrifices where you’re a conservative or you take a position that’s not popular is what it’s going to take to drain the swamp,” he said.
“I’m up here with two guys that, one of which oversees the worst district in the nation for drug abuse deaths, and the other one lobbies for and works with and has friends that work for the drug companies that cause that,” he later said. “I’m up here with guys that get money from Planned Parenthood or perhaps voted for funding Planned Parenthood, and I’ve given $200,000 to Right to Life to protect the unborn.”
3. Ditching Mitch?
When asked to raise their hand if they supported keeping McConnell as Senate Majority Leader, none of the candidates did so. Blankenship ducked behind his podium.
“Mitch McConnell hasn’t even asked for my support,” Jenkins said. “I think it’s way too premature.”
He said McConnell deserves credit for holding a spot on the Supreme Court for Justice Neil Gorsuch. Jenkins added he is more worried about maintaining the Republican majority in the Senate.
POLITICO reported in November that Jenkins was the only candidate backing McConnell this election cycle.
Morrisey said he will make a decision on McConnell after the general election.
When Baier got to Blankenship, he pulled out two red hats reading “Ditch Mitch,” similar to the “Make America Great Again” hats associated with the Trump presidential campaign. Blankenship had planned to wear one of the hats, but that would have been against the debate’s rules.
Blankenship released an advertisement Monday calling McConnell “Cocaine Mitch,” referencing a 2014 story by the Nation, which states 90 pounds of cocaine were found on a shipping vessel owned by the family of McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.
“I’m not going to D.C. to get along, so that won’t be a failure because I don’t intend to get along,” Blankenship said. “I intend to make sure we make a difference.”
Mountain Families PAC, which has ties to McConnell, has spent more than $1.3 million on advertisements against Blankenship.
4. Morrisey paints himself as the conservative’s choice
Touting endorsements from West Virginians for Life, firearm organizations and conservatives, Morrisey said people know he has what conservatives want in a senator.
“West Virginians want someone with conservative values,” he said. “I look up here on stage and I can say I am the only one on this stage who has always been a conservative.”
Morrisey did address the support of Steve Bannon, the former special counselor to the president. Bannon endorsed Morrisey in September, four months before the release of “Fire and Fury,” in which Bannon is quoted attacking Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner.
“When Bannon went after Trump, I thought it was reprehensible,” Morrisey said.
He then turned to Jenkins and Blankenship, saying, “You don’t go after family members and a wife. You just don’t do that. Those are not West Virginia values.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the National Rifle Association and the editors of the National Review endorse Morrisey. Paul will be in Huntington on Thursday for a Morrisey campaign event.
5. Who did they support?
Jenkins went after Morrisey for not being dedicated to supporting Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
“The problem is Patrick Morrisey won’t look at the camera, won’t look at the people of West Virginia and say why he did not vote for Donald Trump for president in the May primary,” he said. “He was the one who said publicly, ‘Donald Trump wasn’t my first choice.’ Who was your first choice, Patrick?”
Morrisey attended the 2016 Republican National Convention as an unaffiliated delegate, but later said he voted for Trump in the primary and general elections. He also voted for Trump as a member of the Electoral College.
“Evan supported him the day before the primary,” Morrisey said. “That’s no profile in courage.”
Jenkins additionally asked Morrisey why he supported the congressman’s previous campaigns.
“I didn’t know at the time that you were willing to lie so much and as much about your liberal background,” Morrisey said to boos. “I won’t make that mistake again.”
Jenkins avoided saying who he voted for in the 2008 presidential election when asked by the moderators
“I didn’t vote for Hillary Clinton. I am proud to support the Republican,” he said.