CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Three Republicans in West Virginia’s race for U.S. Senate went after each other in a fiery, nationally-televised debate.

Over long stretches of the debate Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey traded barbs and counter-claims.

“You stood next to me three years ago and said I was right for West Virginia. What’s different now?” Jenkins said at one point, referring to his successful 2016 congressional bid.

Morrisey responded, “I didn’t know you would lie so much.”

And, when he got a chance to speak, ex-coal mine executive Don Blankenship — released from jail last year — called them both opportunists who aren’t up to the job.

“Let me clarify that both of these guys are right. They’re both lying,” Blankenship said.

West Virginia and the three candidates were in the national spotlight one week before the primary election.

Each of the candidates is aiming to take on presumed Democratic candidate Joe Manchin, an incumbent senator and a longtime West Virginia political powerhouse.

Polling determined the three candidates — who are actually in a field of six — would participate in the debate. A Fox News poll last week determined 25 percent of primary voters prefer Jenkins, 21 percent for Morrisey and 16 for Blankenship.

Adding to the debate’s importance — 41 percent of the sample say that it’s possible they’ll change their mind between now and the election.

The hour-long debate was hosted by Fox News anchors Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum from the Metropolitan Theater in Morgantown.

Baggage for each

Each of the candidates tried to prove they would be the most conservative and the most closely allied with President Donald Trump, who carried West Virginia with 68 percent of the vote in the presidential election.

But each of the candidates also had to address perceived weaknesses.

For Blankenship, it was his misdemeanor conviction on a conspiracy charge that stemmed from the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 workers. “Do you accept any responsibility for the deaths of those 29 miners?”

Blankenship, who has spent a couple of years touting an alternate theory of how the explosion happened — despite studies that concluded otherwise — said he accepts responsibility for trying to prevent it from happening again.

For Jenkins, the question was his switch from his longtime Democratic registration to the Republican Party prior to his run for Congress. “How do you convince WV voters that you can drain the swamp if they think you’re a part of it?”

“I’ve been fighting the establishment. I’ve been fighting the swamp,” Jenkins said.

The moderators asked how West Virginians could be sure he wouldn’t switch again if the political tides change.

“I simply couldn’t be a part of a Democratic Party that was so wrong for West Virginia,” Jenkins responded.

And for Morrisey, it was his residency and congressional bid in New Jersey prior to moving to West Virginia — as well as his career in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist and Capitol Hill staffer.

“I love West Virginia with all the fiber of my being,” Morrisey said.

Blankenshp also had to defend his residence, which he established in Las Vegas during his 2016 trial. “I pay probably more taxes than anyone on this stage to West Virginia,” he said.

The moderators asked a followup. “If Joe Manchin comes at you for living in Nevada, what do you say?”

Blankenship: “That he’s been living in D.C. for too long.”

Opioid crisis question

Both Morrisey and Jenkins also took questions about their roles in West Virginia’s greatest current crisis — the opioid epidemic that has ravaged the state.

Morrisey was asked about how his office’s lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies square with his own history as a lobbyist and his wife’s work for a lobbying company representing Cardinal Health, one of the big pharmaceutical companies.

Morrisey responded that the Attorney General’s office has gone after the pharmaceutical industry aggressively.

And Jenkins was asked to defend his record as the congressman representing the region of the state hardest hit by the opioid epidemic. “What makes you think you deserve a promotion when the district you represent is Ground Zero for the opioid crisis?” the moderators asked.

Jenkins cited his work with Lily’s Place in Huntington and then fired on Morrisey, turning back to the Attorney General’s lobbying history and his wife’s work in Washington, D.C.

“There Evan goes yet again,” Morrisey said, claiming Jenkins was misrepresenting his record. “Did your mom ever wash your mouth out with soap for those lies?”

McConnell as majority leader

Each of the candidates was asked if they would support Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to continue as Senate majority leader.

Blankenship ducked down behind his podium.

Jenkins and Morrisey did not raise their hands to demonstrate support for McConnell.

Blankenship has been targeted with advertisements by national Republicans who believe he carries too much baggage to win a campaign against Manchin. So Blankenship fired back this week with an ad with a tenuous connection to McConnell and a drug raid on a boat owned by the family of McConnell’s wife.

“If you are elected and Mitch McConnell is the majority leader, how will you get anything done?” Baier asked Blankenship.

“First of all, he won’t be the majority leader. Next, I’d like to clarify. Both of these guys are lying,” Blankenship responded, saying Jenkins and Morrisey couldn’t claim to drain the swamp while also not knowing if they would back McConnell as majority leader.

“I don’t intend to go to D.C. to get along. I intend to make a difference,” Blankenship said.

The Democratic Party in West Virginia responded with a series of statements after the debate ended. The Democrats focused on Morrisey and Blankenship.

“Tonight’s debate exposed Evan Jenkins and Patrick Morrisey for who they are: former special interest lobbyists that cut deals to help themselves, and now they want to swim in the D.C. swamp,” stated Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore.

The Democratic Party did agree with Blankenship on one matter: “West Virginians watching this understand why West Virginians must ditch Mitch in 2018.”

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